The president plans a fiery speech at the mountain monument where four presidents’ faces are carved into the hillside, billed to include denunciations of protesters attacking Confederate statues who he will say are trying to “tear down” the nation’s history.
The trip, with Melania Trump, comes the day after the US broke the world record for new daily confirmed Covid-19 cases, with more than 55,000 new infections on Thursday.
On Friday morning, amid reports of hospitals in some southern and western states close to being overwhelmed with new coronavirus patients and doctors and nurses forced to prioritize who gets a ventilator, Trump was playing golf in Virginia before traveling to Mount Rushmore.
In his speech to a crowd of about 7,500 late on Friday night, Trump is expected to target “the leftwing mob and those practicing ‘cancel’ culture”, said a person familiar with his remarks, referring to a type of online shaming and ostracism, usually of celebrities, for unpopular comments or actions.
The state Republican party plans to sell T-shirts with an image featuring Trump’s face on the memorial alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
But concern about the coronavirus risk and wildfire danger from the fireworks, which have been banned in the area in recent years, along with protests from Native American groups, were also expected.
The Republican South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, a Trump ally, has said social distancing will not be required during the event and masks will be optional. Event organizers will provide masks to anyone who wants them and plan to screen attendees for symptoms of Covid-19.
“We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home, but those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks if they choose to wear one. But we won’t be social distancing,” Noem said earlier in the week.
The Republican mayor of the largest city near the monument, Rapid City, said he would be watching for an increase in cases after the event, the Rapid City Journal reported.
“We’re going to have thousands of people, shoulder to shoulder at these events – someone in line to see a president and being able to see fireworks at Mount Rushmore, they are probably not likely to disqualify themself because they developed a cough the day of or the day before,” the mayor, Steve Allender, said.
Leaders of several Native American tribes in the region also raised concerns that the event could lead to virus outbreaks among their members, who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 because of an underfunded health care system and chronic health conditions. They also pointed out that the Black Hills region where Mount Rushmore is located was taken from the Lakota people in a breach of 19th-century treaty agreements.
The Oglala Sioux president, Julian Bear Runner, told the Guardian: “Trump coming here is a safety concern not just for my people inside and outside the reservation, but for people in the Great Plains. We have such limited resources in Black Hills, and we’re already seeing infections rising.”
Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, said: “The president is putting our tribal members at risk to stage a photo op at one of our most sacred sites.”
Security is expected to be tight, with the road leading up to Mount Rushmore shut down.
But several people who once oversaw fire safety at the national memorial have said setting off fireworks over the forest is a bad idea that could lead to a large wildfire. Fireworks were called off after 2009 because a mountain pine beetle infestation increased the fire risk. A wildfire was burning earlier in the week not far from the monument.
After golf and returning to the White House, Trump departed in the late afternoon for South Dakota.
The president and the first lady will be back in Washington in time for a Fourth of July celebration on Saturday on the National Mall.
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