President Trump used his first appearance in his hometown of New York City as Commander-in-Chief to pay tribute to the alliance between the U.S. and Australia, telling a gala dinner on board the USS Intrepid that "Americans have had no better friends than the Australians."
Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which American and Australian warships and fighter planes engaged the Japanese navy, forcing its retreat for the first time in the Second World War.
"In those Pacific waters we forged iron bonds between our two countries," Trump said. "Few peoples in the world share ties in history, affection and culture like the Americans and the Australians. Those ties are sealed with the blood of our grandfathers and fathers and those same ties are now the priceless heritage we celebrate so beautifully tonight."
Trump paid tribute to the heroism of the battle's veterans and also pointed to the Intrepid, which survived being hit by four separate Japanese kamikaze attacks during the war, as a need for the U.S. to keep its military strong and pledged that he would continue to boost defense spending.
The commemoration ceremony was preceded by a bilateral meeting between Trump and Turnbull, which had been pushed back several hours so the president could tout Thursday's House vote to repeal and replace ObamaCare.
"We have a fantastic relationship, but I love Australia," Trump said after the meeting.
The two leaders had exchanged a tense phone call shortly after Trump's inauguration over a deal Turnbull made with former President Barack Obama to for the U.S. to resettle up to 1,250 mostly Muslim refugees from Africa, the Mideast and Asia who are housed in immigration camps on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
During his remarks, Trump downplayed reports about the tenor of the call, jokingly asking Turnbull, "We really didn’t have a rough phone call, did we?"
"No, we had, actually, a very nice call," the president went on. "Got a little bit testy, but that’s OK. We have a very good relationship and I’m proud of the relationship."
Trump went on to say he and Turnbull had a "productive discussion" about issues important to their nations, "ranging from national security to trade to immigration and enhanced economic cooperation."
Thursday marks Trump's first appearance in New York since leaving on Jan. 19 for Washington to be inaugurated into office the following day. But now deeply unpopular in his hometown, where he only received 18 percent of the vote in November's presidential election, Trump said in an interview last week that he so far has avoided returning to the city because the trips are expensive for the government and would inconvenience New Yorkers.
Modest protests were held across the city, including along the West Side Highway, where demonstrators were confined to pens near the Intrepid while holding up signs saying "Dump Trump" and chanting "Not my president." Some passing cars honked in support.
"We want him to know the resistance remains, even in his hometown," said Ruthie Adler, 30, a Manhattan waitress.
Trump's wife, Melania, and son Barron live at Trump Tower most of the time while the 11-year-old finishes the school year. The president was not expected to spend the night there, instead slated to sleep at his golf club an hour away in Bedminister, N.J.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.