Trump Honors D-Day Sacrifices, With Some Legacies Unspoken

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Standing on a sun-drenched bluff above the Normandy beaches, where 10,000 soldiers sacrificed themselves to a savage fusillade of gunfire and opened the way for Europe’s liberation in 1944, President Trump declared on Thursday, “We are gathered here on freedom’s altar.”

Seventy-five years after the D-Day invasion, the president, who has called into question America’s allies around the world — including those whom Americans fought alongside in Normandy — pledged his fidelity to friendships “forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace.”

It was Mr. Trump’s only reference to the importance of the Atlantic alliance, in a speech that paid rich tribute to the service of D-Day veterans. Sixty of them were seated behind him in a semicircular colonnade that looked out over the white stone grave markers of their fallen comrades, and to Omaha Beach beyond it.

Speaking gravely, with few of the ad-libs that usually pepper his speeches, Mr. Trump recounted individual stories of heroism and suffering, often in graphic terms, from that June morning. The veterans of D-Day, he said, not only had vanquished Nazi tyranny but also built the American century, defeating Communism, securing civil rights, pioneering scientific discoveries, and putting a man on the moon.

“To the men who sit behind me and to the boys who rest in the field before me,” Mr. Trump said, “your example will never, ever grow old, your legend will never tire, your spirit — brave, unyielding and true — will never die.”

There was a lingering incongruity to Mr. Trump’s words: a president who has denigrated the European Union and accused NATO of shaking down American taxpayers paying homage to an allied military campaign that was perhaps the greatest single demonstration of America’s commitment to a free and peaceful Europe.

Mr. Trump also brought domestic politics and personal feuds on to the hallowed ground of the cemetery. With the white grave markers visible behind him, the president gave an interview to Fox News in which he labeled Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated his campaign’s ties to Russia, a “fool,” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a “disaster.”

The president said little about how he views America’s role in the world or its relationship to the Europe of today, in which the multilateral institutions built by the United States and its allies after World War II to prevent future wars are fraying under populist insurgencies from Britain to Poland.

It is a movement that Mr. Trump has led at home and embraced abroad — and it was on vivid display during his weeklong trip to Europe. In London, Mr. Trump met with the hard-line pro-Brexit leader, Nigel Farage, and dangled the prospect of a lucrative trade deal with Britain if it cut ties to the European Union.

It fell to President Emmanuel Macron of France to defend the American-led postwar order. Speaking before Mr. Trump, he offered thanks to the United States for its wartime sacrifice and conferred the French Legion of Honor on several veterans. Then he paid tribute to the institutions the United States helped create.

“We must show ourselves worthy of the heritage of peace you left us,” Mr. Macron said, pointing to the treaty that created NATO. “That is what the leaders of Europe did in creating the European Union.”

Ultimately, however, it was less a day to litigate differences than to mark a momentous piece of shared history. Mr. Trump, joined by Mr. Macron, and their wives, Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron, walked to an observation point overlooking Omaha Beach, as artillery cannons fired a 21-gun salute.

A guide pointed out the waves of the assault on a map, before the leaders turned to gaze at the sea, now quiet but for a single warship keeping watch.

Overhead, vintage American warplanes rumbled past, while advanced fighter jets streaked through the skies, trailing red, white and blue contrails. The planes flew in “missing man formation,” in which they fly together, before one abruptly pulls out of the formation and climbs to signify a fallen warrior.

Mr. Trump had never visited Omaha Beach, and as he has done in other similar first-time encounters, he reacted with an almost childlike wonder. When he sat down later to meet with Mr. Macron in the nearby city of Caen, the president marveled at the high fatality rates suffered by the first soldiers on the beach.

“This was a special day,” he said. “We read about it all our lives, and there are those who say it was the most important ever.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron, whose budding friendship had recently chilled, tried to put their differences on the back burner. “The relationship we’ve had together has been terrific,” Mr. Trump said. Mr. Macron suggested their disagreements on Iran were largely a matter of tactics.

At times, the president seemed genuinely touched by the rituals of remembrance. On Wednesday, at a memorial service in Portsmouth, England, where British troops were loaded on ships for Juno and Sword beaches, he read a prayer that Franklin D. Roosevelt had read on the radio on the eve of the operation.

At other times, though, he has allowed things to get in the way of honoring the troops. Last November, Mr. Trump skipped a ceremony at an American military cemetery outside Paris for soldiers and Marines killed in World War I. The White House said the visit was canceled because of rain, though that did not stop other world leaders from honoring their fallen.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump spoke of Ray Lambert, who landed on the beach as a 23-year-old Army medic with his brother Bill. Only seven of the 31 soldiers on Mr. Lambert’s landing craft survived. As the bullets cut down his comrades, he raced repeatedly back into the sea to drag out wounded soldiers.

“He was shot through the arm,” Mr. Trump said. “His leg was ripped open by shrapnel. His back was broken. He nearly drowned. He had been on the beach for hours, bleeding and saving lives, when he finally lost consciousness.”

When Mr. Lambert woke up on a cot the next day, he found his brother lying beside him. Mr. Trump turned and gestured to Mr. Lambert, now 98, who was sitting behind him. It drew some of the loudest applause of the day.

In giving words to the long-ago fury of D-Day, Mr. Trump followed in the footsteps of predecessors who marked this occasion with some of the most memorable addresses of their presidencies. In 1984, on the 40th anniversary, President Ronald Reagan gestured to veterans of the invasion, who were arrayed before him.

“These are the boys of Point du Hoc,” Mr. Reagan said. ‘‘These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

In 1994, on the 50th anniversary, a baby boomer president, Bill Clinton, gestured to the sons and daughters of the veterans in attendance, and said, “Here are the faces for whom you risked your lives. Here are the generations for whom you won a war. We are the children of your sacrifice.”

In 2014, President Barack Obama commemorated the 70th anniversary by singling out the dwindling number of veterans still on hand. “Let us recognize your service once more,” he said. “These men waged war so we might know peace. They sacrificed so that we might be free. They fought in hopes of a day when we’d no longer need to fight.”

Mr. Trump did not match the oratorical heights of Mr. Reagan, whose speech was recognized as one of his finest. In its graphic depiction of the horror on the beaches, Mr. Trump’s speech evoked the ominous tone of his Inaugural Address. And when he declared, “Today, America is stronger than ever before,” it was the kind of dependable applause line that could have been taken from one of his rallies.

There were other distinctively Trumpian touches. As he has on every stop of this trip, Mr. Trump turned the ceremony into a family affair. Mr. Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, sat in the second row, a day after they were photographed on a pub crawl in Doonberg, Ireland, where their father owns a golf club and where he spent the night before flying to France. They sat next to the national security adviser, John R. Bolton.

As Mr. Trump greeted the veterans — some in wheelchairs and shrouded in warming blankets — one man yelled, “Hey, you’re our president, too. Come on up this way.” When the president did not respond, he said, “There’s a lot of people back in Pennsylvania who want to vote for you.”

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