President Donald Trump will deliver a presidential address at a controversial “Salute to America” celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall on the Fourth of July featuring heavy military equipment and heads of major military branches.
The event, which will be added on to the annual “Capitol Fourth” concert and D.C.’s usual parade, is intended to honor the five branches of the military, but critics say it blurs the lines between politics and the military, politicizes a nonpartisan celebration and offers visuals reminiscent of Chinese or Russian events. Some D.C. residents are also concerned about damage to local roads from tanks.
Here’s what you need to know.
Why is Trump giving a speech on the 4th of July?
Trump says the parade was inspired by watching the Bastille Day festivities in France in July of 2017.
A few days after the event, during an Oval Office interview, the president had this exchange with the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman:
It was still on his mind a few months later at another meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron. “To a large extent, because of what I witnessed, we may do something like that on July Fourth in Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue, if I have your approval,” Trump said at a joint press conference with Macron. “I don’t know. We’re gonna have to try and top it, but we had a lot of planes going over and a lot of military might, and it was really a beautiful thing to see.”
Trump initially tried to make the parade happen on either Veterans’ Day or the 4th of July in 2018. But the president faced criticism for the price tag for the taxpayer-funded event, initially estimated at $10 million but later upped to as high as $92 million. (By comparison, Trump called $14 million joint war exercises with South Korea that he canceled “tremendously expensive.”)
When the $92 million estimate first came out, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked about it by reporters who were traveling with him on an official trip to Colombia.
“Whoever told you that is smoking something that’s legal in my state — but not in most states,” he told the press. (Mattis is originally from Washington state, where recreational marijuana is legal.)
In August 2018, the president tabled the effort to hold a military parade, but left open the possibility of trying again in 2019, tweeting: “Maybe we will do something next year in D.C. when the cost comes WAY DOWN.”
That provoked this response from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser:
What can we expect from Trump’s ‘Salute to America’ event?
It remains unclear what exactly “Salute to America” will entail or how much it will cost. The Washington Post, citing anonymous sources, reported that the National Park Service is diverting $2.5 million in park usage and entrance fees to help pay for the event. The Pentagon and the Administration will not disclose cost estimates.
According to the Department of the Interior, attendees can expect “music, military demonstrations, flyovers and much more” from the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the U.S. Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”), the Armed Forces Chorus, and the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Team.
On Tuesday, the president tweeted a link to the Department of the Interior’s informational webpage.
Additionally, the fireworks will be the largest ever in D.C. history, costing approximately 10 times as much as the typical display. (Two pyrotechnics companies have teamed up to donate the fireworks, which are valued at $750,000 and would retail for over $1 million.)
What can we expect from the military show?
Some critics have said that the tanks could damage D.C.’s streets, but the military will transport the tanks on flatbed trucks “in order to protect streets in the District,” said Maj. Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman.
Mitchell also said that two M1A2 Abrams tanks and two M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles “may be displayed throughout the event.” Military tank displays may be unusual, but not unprecedented: the Army annually displays heavy equipment in the D.C. region, and Kennedy and Eisenhower’s inaugural parades featured tanks.
Additionally, military aircraft including a B-2 bomber as well as F-22 and F-35 stealth fighter jets are also expected to participate in “Salute to America”.
“At this time, we do not have a cost estimate for DoD’s support to the Salute to America,” Mitchell said. But the total is likely to be in the millions: operating the military aircraft can cost tens of thousands of dollars per flight hour.
Which big names will be attending Trump’s event?
The White House has allocated the Republican National Committee an undisclosed number of VIP tickets to the front section, and is expected to distribute them to top donors and the president’s political allies.
By contrast, the Democratic National Committee has not received any tickets to allocate. In response to concerns that the disparity in ticket distribution along party lines may have politicized the event, Kellyanne Conway told CNN that “the public is welcome” to attend the non-ticketed section farther away from the stage, which requires standing in line with no guarantee of admission.
Top Pentagon officials are also expected to attend the event, including Mark Esper, who recently replaced Patrick Shanahan as the Acting Secretary of Defense; Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Richard V. Spencer, Secretary of the Navy; Matthew Donovan, Acting Secretary of the Air Force; Adm. Karl Schultz, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; and Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, Director of the Army National Guard.
Why is the speech controversial?
Trump is breaking with precedent. Prior presidents traditionally refrained from putting themselves at the center of a Fourth of July celebration out of concern that it would politicize the day.
There’s another concern, too. On July 4, 1970, Richard Nixon’s taped address at “Honor America Day” at the Lincoln Memorial—where Trump is scheduled to speak—was overshadowed by anti-Vietnam protests in the National Mall’s Reflecting Pool.
Congressional Democrats have already criticized the President’s decision to headline this year’s celebration. “Frankly, that’s not what July 4th is about,” Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, told NBC News. “…it’s sad that the president’s turning it into — in my opinion and the opinion of many — a political rally.”
“He can’t resist injecting partisan politics into the most nonpartisan sacred American holiday there is: the Fourth of July,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia told the New York Times.
Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Patrick Leahy of Vermont objected to the president’s appearance in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
“We are deeply troubled that the president’s involvement at the event will turn the long-standing, nonpartisan celebration into a de facto campaign rally conducted at taxpayer expense that will serve to further divide rather than unify the nation,” the Democratic senators wrote. “We are also concerned that the decision to expand the event to include a potential Presidential address will require the National Park Service to divert resources from other priorities of the Mall or other national park system units at a time when it is facing significant budgetary pressures to address its $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog and accommodate record-setting visitation.”
Ethics watchdogs have also expressed concerns that the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington may also see increased profits due to the event.
What protests are planned?
Activist group Code Pink received a permit to display a “Baby Trump” balloon, which depicts the president as a diapered infant, in protest of the “Salute to America” event on Thursday. The balloon has become an common symbol of protest against the President. It has been spotted all over the globe, from the U.S. to Dublin, Paris, Buenos Aires, Edinburgh, Scotland and London.
The National Park Service (NPS) gave the group a permit to use a float, however, the permit did not authorize helium grounding the blimp. NPS also denied Code Pink’s requested location to have the blimp within eyeshot of the Lincoln Memorial, where Trump will hold a speech conclude the parade. To accommodate, the group plans to place the blimp near the Washington Monument and will use a leaf blower to inflate it with air. Code Pink also plans to have a robot of Trump tweeting on a golden toilet at the protest.
Liberal veterans advocacy group VoteVets is scheduled to hand out thousands of T-shirts that display the U.S. Navy destroyer ship USS John S. McCain alongside the nickname “Big Bad John,” in honor of the veteran and late Arizona Senator. It is no secret that President Trump and McCain had a longstanding feud and the President has continued to speak ill of the war hero after his death.
The feud continued last month during Trump’s visit to U.S. service members in Japan, when there were reports that the White House asked the Navy to hide the 6,800-ton guided-missile destroyer while the President was there. Trump later denied he had any knowledge of the incident.
How has Trump’s ‘Salute for America’ event disrupted D.C.’s July 4th celebration?
Usually, D.C. celebrates July 4th with fireworks, a parade, and the Capitol Fourth concert. The concert will continue as scheduled, but Carole King, one of the featured performers, wanted to make clear that it is independent from the president’s address:
But this year, due to Trump’s address at the Lincoln Memorial, the fireworks launch site will have to be moved, according to a Fox News reporter. As a result, the display will no longer be fully visible from either the Capitol or the Washington monument.
Moreover, the additional security requirements have created logistical problems for the city, according to Muriel Bowser, the Democratic mayor of Washington, D.C. “If we have to put more police to cover [Trump’s] movements, more police for the fireworks and an additional location for police where the fireworks are going to get set off, that puts a strain on us,” Bowser told the Washington Post last Thursday.
Van Hollen and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote in a June 18 letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees that the District’s Emergency Planning and Security Fund will run out of funds in July, in part because it is still waiting for reimbursement of $7.3 million for Trump’s inauguration.
“It is important to note that the spend rate does not factor in the substantial unanticipated costs for President Trump’s July 4th speech and activities at the Lincoln Memorial,” Van Hollen and Norton wrote. “Since the July 4th program has not yet been set, those costs are still unknown.”
How can I watch the event live?
“A Capitol Fourth” will be broadcast live on PBS from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Eastern.