WASHINGTON (AP) – With fireworks heralding his big moment, Donald Trump swept into Washington Thursday on the eve of his presidential inauguration and pledged to unify a nation sorely divided and clamoring for change. The capital braced for an onslaught of crowds and demonstrators – with all the attendant hoopla and hand-wringing.
“It’s a movement like we’ve never seen anywhere in the world,” the president-elect declared at a celebratory evening concert Thursday night with the majestic Lincoln Memorial for a backdrop. To the unwavering supporters who were with him from the start, he promised: “You’re not forgotten any more. You’re not forgotten any more.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he called out, and then fireworks exploded into the evening sky.
Trump began taking on more trappings of the presidency during the day, giving a salute to the Air Force officer who welcomed him as he stepped off a military jet with wife Melania at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington. Later, he placed a ceremonial wreath at Arlington National Cemetery.
At a luncheon in a ballroom at his own hotel, he gave a shout-out to Republican congressional leaders, declaring: “I just want to let the world know we’re doing very well together.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, he said, will finally have someone to sign legislation into law. Then Trump veered into the territory of the unknowable to boast his Cabinet selections had “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever.”
Just blocks away, the White House was quickly emptying out. President Barack Obama had his final weekly lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and got in a few final official acts, cutting the sentences of 330 inmates and placing a call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence, in a tweet, called Inauguration Eve “a momentous day before a historic day,” as security barricades and blockades went up around Washington in preparation for Friday’s swearing-in at the Capitol.
“We are all ready to go to work,” Pence said. “In fact, we can’t wait to get to work for the American people to make it great again.”
Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he’d be putting on his “favorite DHS jacket” and taking to the streets to inspect security preparations for the inaugural festivities.
He told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that areas where inaugural crowds will congregate will be “extra fortified this year with dump trucks, heavily armored vehicles to prevent anybody who’s not authorized from being in the area from driving something in there.” He said there was “no specific credible threat” related to the inauguration.
Trump’s public schedule for the inaugural celebration began at Arlington, where he and Pence stood at attention as a bugler played taps at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Trump’s wife, children and grandchildren silently looked on.
From there, Trump shuttled to a celebratory welcome concert on the steps of Lincoln Memorial that ended with fireworks filling the sky.
The concert, open to the public, offered headliners including country star Toby Keith, soul’s Sam Moore and rockers 3 Doors Down. But not singer Jennifer Holliday: She backed out after an outcry from Trump critics.
“This is some day, dear friends,” actor Jon Voight told the crowd, casting Trump’s impending inauguration as evidence of divine intervention after “a parade of propaganda that left us all breathless with anticipation, not knowing if God could reverse all the negative lies against Mr. Trump.”
The crowd sent up a cheer when the giant screens flashed video of Trump singing along as Lee Greenwood delivered his signature “God Bless the U.S. A.” Trump declared such a concert had a never been done before. In fact, a number of past presidents have staged inaugural concerts among the monuments.
Tom Barrack, the chief architect of Trump’s inaugural festivities, said Trump would show the world that “we can argue, we can fight and we can debate,” but then the nation unites behind one president.
Trump, though, still had an urge to rehearse particulars of the long, 18-month campaign, from its early days when he claimed “a lot of people didn’t give us much of a chance” to the final weeks when his rallies took him to “state after state after state.”
Spokesman Sean Spicer said the president-elect was still making “edits and additions” to the inaugural address he’ll deliver at Friday’s swearing-in.
Never mind about Trump’s gilded private plane: He made his Washington entrance on a Boeing 757 that is part of the fleet of military planes that become Air Force One whenever the president is aboard. The president-elect, who came to Washington without any press on his plane, was joined on the trip by a gaggle of children, grandchildren and other members of his extended family. Also spotted: bags of dresses and formalwear for the coming days’ festivities.
At the luncheon, Trump made sure to work in a plug for his hotel, saying, “This is a gorgeous room. A total genius must have built this place.” Reporters covering Trump’s remark were removed from the room before the president-elect finished speaking.
Ebullient Trump fans were ready for a three-day party.
“We’re hoping for good weather and hoping for some unity,” said Jon-Paul Oldham, a firefighter who came from Thomaston, Connecticut. He said everyone should want Trump to succeed.
“Wanting him to fail is like wanting the plane to crash but you’re on the plane,” Oldham said.
It does appear it may rain on Trump’s parade.
With rain in the forecast, the National Park Service announced that it was easing its “no umbrella” policy for Friday, allowing collapsible umbrellas along the parade route and on the National Mall.
But Trump was unfazed, telling donors at an event Thursday night that if “it really pours that’s OK, because people will realize it’s my real hair. Might be a mess, but they’re going to see that it’s my real hair.”