NOEL KING, HOST:
The Fourth of July has usually offered presidents an opportunity to declare independence from the public eye. It's been pretty rare for any president to address the public on July Fourth. But last night, President Trump went his own way. He gave a speech beside the Lincoln Memorial.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our nation is stronger today than it ever was before.
TRUMP: It is its strongest now.
KING: It was part of what the White House called a Salute to America ceremony. The event included fighter jets flying overhead and tanks deployed in the capital. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno was the top military commander in Afghanistan. He's on the line with me now. Good morning, sir.
DAVID BARNO: Good morning.
KING: All right. I want to start by playing some of what the president said yesterday. Take a listen to this.
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TRUMP: On this July Fourth, we pay special tribute to the military service members who laid down their lives for our nation. We are deeply moved to be in the presence this evening of gold star families whose loved ones made these supreme sacrifice. Thank you. Thank you.
KING: Now, sir, I know you had some concerns about the way the president was going to approach this event. I think a lot of the president's supporters would ask, why not honor the military on the Fourth of July? Why not use that occasion? What do you think about that?
BARNO: Well, I think the concerns that myself and many others had before this event is that the president would turn this into a partisan political rally and use the crowds and use, more importantly, the backdrop of the military equipment that was going to be there as props in that political rally. He's been on record many times in front of American troops in his travels overseas in very partisan remarks, attacking the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate and making remarks that are really inappropriate in front of military audiences. There was a lot of concern that I had and others had that last night's speech would be simply another bigger, grander version of that. And that's not really what we saw...
KING: Do you think it was? - yeah.
BARNO: No, I do not, actually. I watched it in detail. And I watched the flyovers as well here from home on TV. And I thought - of all the speeches he's given in his presidency that I've been aware of, was probably the least partisan and most unifying speech that the president has given. And that's against a background of that being very unexpected and very uncommon for this president.
KING: You know, military service members, as you know, have become a smaller share of the population. And people on both sides of the partisan divide have talked about the difficulty in making the rest of us - those of us who haven't served - really understand the cost of protecting the country.
And I wonder, given that you're not too critical of how the president's speech played out last night, do you think that maybe this is an argument that this is the way to do it? Like, give people some credit. Give service members some credit in this very public forum, draw attention to their service.
BARNO: Well, I think one of the issues was, is the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., the right time and place to do that? And I think that's a worthy topic of discussion. And, you know, Veterans Day and Memorial Day are both holidays that are really devoted to the service that U.S. military members, past and present, have performed in support of the United States everywhere around the world.
But at the same time, I would also say that, you know, senior military people, myself included, were concerned about how this speech would come out from the standpoint of politicizing the military. But I think, as I looked at the crowd last night and I thought about the president's remarks, I think the rank-and-file military will actually see that particular event as something unique in the annals of a president actually stepping forward and singling them out for their support and their service.
The president talked about a lot of other American accomplishments. He talked about accomplishments in science and culture and technology and highlighted individuals from astronauts to civil rights activists in the same speech. But the military, I think, now, after 19 years of wars that haven't ended yet, may find this among the rank and file to be something that's quite praiseworthy in their view.
KING: There were military families there yesterday who'd gotten invitations to this VIP section close to the president's stage. Do you think they should have turned down those invitations?
BARNO: No, I don't think so. I think this is an appropriate, you know - and as we look at the various laws and regulations about military members - not their families so much and their political activity - had the president, again, turned this into a political rally, had it looked like some of his rallies around the country for his reelection and been overtly about that and had that been clear up front, I think, yeah, they probably would have had to relook that.
But the way this ended up turning out, and the fact that it was really designed to - as the president stated upfront and most of us didn't think he would follow through on - to honor the military, I don't think that there was a need for military families to turn down those invites. I was concerned that the other invites went to, you know, big donors in the Republican Party and that there was very much a partisan flavor to that. But I think, from the standpoint of military families, they were in good shape and probably felt honored being there.
KING: Retired Lieutenant General David Barno, now at Johns Hopkins University. Sir, thanks so much for joining us.
BARNO: Thank you. Have a great Fourth of July aftermath.
KING: Same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.