As US struggles with virus, Trump heads to Rushmore for fireworks

Washington (AFP) –


Under fire for his response to America's spiraling coronavirus caseload, President Donald Trump is heading to Mount Rushmore on Friday for a night of holiday fireworks that he hopes will provide a much-needed distraction.

On the eve of the country's Independence Day, the Republican leader is to speak in the shadow of four of his notable predecessors: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, whose heads are carved into a granite cliff in South Dakota's Black Hills.

Trump has had little to say about the shocking increase in the number of virus cases in the US, though in a tweet late Thursday he said the rise was because "our testing is so massive and so good, far bigger and better than any other country," calling that "great news."

He added: "Even better news is that death, and the death rate, is DOWN."

US testing has risen sharply, but health experts say it still lags, on a per-capita basis, behind many other countries; they say testing does not fully explain the case rise; and they note that deaths tend to increase only a few weeks after cases rise.

Amid the spate of bad virus news, Trump has been openly exuberant about the Rushmore event.

Some 7,500 people are expected to attend. There are no plans for social distancing, however, and masks will be available but not required.

"We're going to have a tremendous evening. It's going to be a fireworks display like few people have seen," the president said Thursday.

The pandemic has claimed nearly 130,000 American lives, amid a sharp resurgence of cases, particularly in the country's south and west, which top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has said "puts the entire country at risk."

Vice President Mike Pence had to postpone a trip to Arizona this week after members of his Secret Service detail reportedly showed signs of COVID-19, and pressure has grown, even from several leaders of Trump's Republican party, for more widespread wearing of masks.

So, will Trump wear a face mask Friday, setting an example for the nation?

For now, he is sticking with one tried-and-true message, that he conveyed Thursday: the coronavirus crisis is being "handled," the US economy is "roaring back," and 2021 will be a "phenomenal" year.

The data don't necessarily agree: while much of Europe brings the virus under control, some US states are beating their own grim records nearly every day. The number of cases nationwide recently topped 50,000 a day for the first time.

Many states have paused efforts to reopen their economies. Some have even reimposed restrictions on bars, restaurants and beaches.

- No social distancing -

The man in the Oval Office can, however, expect a warm welcome in South Dakota, a state he won easily in 2016 with more than 60 percent of the vote.

The state's Republican governor, Kristi Noem, is certainly not going to spoil his party.

"We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home," Noem told Fox News.

"Those who want to come and join us, we'll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one. But we will not be social distancing."

Randy Seiler, who heads the state Democratic party, strongly opposes the planned festivities, he told CNN. He said they are offensive to Native Americans in the area, who consider the land sacred; that the fireworks pose a fire risk, and that the virus danger is real.

The event, he told CNN, "is a recipe for disaster."

Trump has long expressed his fascination for the imposing Mount Rushmore monument, which was sculpted from 1927 to 1941.

In 2017, he even joked about someday seeing his face joining those of his four predecessors, though National Park officials say the site is not amenable to expansion.

"The National Park Service takes the position that... the work is complete in its present form," said National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn.

The Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, took on the president's Rushmore trip in its own way.

In a video released Thursday, the group highlighted inspiring quotes from Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.

As for Trump, the group said: "America's worst president will neither be remembered nor revered."