It took nearly two years, but Donald Trump finally got his big military show.
The president has wanted to bring tanks to the streets and jets to the skies of the nation’s capital since witnessing France’s Bastille Day parade in 2017, but concerns about a projected $92 million cost and damage to local roads ultimately won out when he tried again on Veterans Day.
But on Thursday, thousands braved rain, humidity and intermittent thunder to line up along the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial for a ”Salute to America,” featuring a short speech on American history by Trump to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“We are one people, chasing one dream, and one magnificent destiny,” Trump said. “We all share the same heroes, the same home, the same heart, and we are all made by the same Almighty God.”
Fighter jets from the Navy’s famous Blue Angels roared overhead, leaving cloudlike trails in their wake. The crowd turned their heads and camera phones up to the sky.
Although the tanks had been a source of both excitement and dismay before the event, the armored vehicles ended up parked near the memorial in the VIP section, where tickets had been handed out by the White House, the Republican National Committee and the Trump re-election campaign. Obscured by fencing and netting, “the tanks were essentially props,” while the VIP section “favored one party over another,” said retired Marine Col. David Lapan, who served in the military for over 30 years and now works for the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., stood next to the president on stage. But most of the other senior uniformed military leaders were on leave or on travel and did not attend, according to the New York Times.
Trump’s triumphal celebration marked a break from his predecessors. Past presidents have typically headed to more low-key spots to avoid appearing to politicize the day, often retreating to their home states. George W. Bush went to West Virginia for four years in a row. While hundreds of thousands of people gathered in D.C. for the bicentennial parade in 1976, Gerald Ford played golf in Bethesda.
Unlike the annual Independence Day events, which include a “Capitol Fourth” concert managed by the National Park Service, Thursday’s event was planned by the White House, and his campaign issued a statement from spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany on the holiday which noted that the president would honor “each of our nation’s five military service branches and the courageous men and women in uniform that have made our country the greatest on earth.”
The promise of the president, the fly-overs and a million-dollar fireworks show drew thousands of spectators who did not have VIP tickets to watch from behind the area cordoned off by chain-link fencing. They waited in lines to get into the grassy grounds of the Mall, where some camped out with beach chairs and blankets. Others sat on plastic bags.
Despite the inclement weather, the choice of location was fitting, with the World War II memorial at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other, flanked by memorials for veterans of Vietnam and Korea. At the 6:30 pm start, there was still plenty of daylight to reflect off of the long pool. The president spoke facing the crowd, looking out at the Washington Monument pointing skyward in the background.
It was the militaristic tableau the president wanted, although not as grandiose as the Bastille Day celebration he admired on a state visit to France. At least since his days at the New York Military Academy, a private boarding school, Trump has enjoyed the trappings of the military. He chose three retired generals for his Cabinet and frequently speaks of Pentagon brass as “my generals.” He boasts, at times inaccurately, of the things he’s done for the military and veterans as president.
But there is a contradiction at the heart of Trump’s relationship with the military which the Independence Day celebration brought to the forefront: as much as he loves the military, he does not share its culture.
In his speech Thursday, the president encouraged younger Americans to join the military, even as he received five deferments and once described not getting a sexually transmitted disease during the 1970s as his “own personal Vietnam.” He praised the sacrifices of the nation’s war dead, even as he skipped a World War I memorial due to rain, repeatedly feuded with the country’s most famous POW and Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and turned a mishandled phone call to grieving military widow Myeshia Johnson into a multi-day controversy.
Some veterans found a way to make the capital’s celebrations less about Trump, and more about his former political foe, the late Sen. John McCain. Less than two blocks north of the White House, VoteVets — a progressive organization devoted to electing veterans to office — handed out 5,000 free shirts that read USS John S. McCain, a Navy destroyer named for the late senator’s father and grandfather which was once moved out of sight during a Trump visit to Japan. The shirts were made by Rags of Honor, an apparel company that employs homeless veterans.
“For us, this was just an opportunity to acknowledge [McCain’s] sacrifice and heroism on the Fourth, and it’s the least that we can do,” said Kate Hoit, a spokesperson for VoteVets and an Iraq War veteran.
The effort drew in local volunteers as well. “I saw the web page on Facebook, and jumped at the opportunity,” said Robin Siegel of Silver Spring, Md., whose father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Although her arms were full of McCain shirts, her own bore the name of his 2008 opponent: “Obama is still my president,” it said.
Still, Trump remains more popular among veterans than he is among the general public. In one poll at the end of 2018, his approval rating among those who had served in the military was 56 percent, compared with 42 percent among those who had not served.
Some of Trump’s supporters at the event felt he had been treated unfairly.
“For three days I heard the liberals scream about how he was going to politicize it — this was going to be about Trump,” said Dale Kennedy, an Air Force veteran from California’s Central Valley who watched the event with friends, sitting in foldout chairs on the National Mall. “And all I heard was honoring our U.S. military and it saluted America … not a thing political.”
The Fourth of July celebration itself stood in opposition to American military tradition. The U.S. has typically eschewed politically tinged displays of military equipment, which are most often associated with countries like North Korea, China and the former Soviet Union. And the military displays “come in the same week that he [Trump] meets with the dictator of North Korea,” noted Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“It cheapens the military to use them as a window dressing like some of his favorite dictators would do,” added Hoit.
Others have questioned the need for a public show of the U.S. military’s strength. “The U.S. doesn’t have to parade its military might through the streets, because everybody knows what we have, and knows we’re the strongest kid on the block,” said Syracuse University professor Steven Pike, who worked at the State Department for more than 20 years as a diplomat and foreign service officer.
Neither the Pentagon nor the White House have given public cost estimates for military participation in the event, though the Washington Post reported that $2.5 million in fees from national parks was being diverted from repairs and improvements to cover it. For his part, Trump argued in a tweet that “the cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth.”
But for Lapan, the expense was not worth it.
“This is still something that the Department of Defense didn’t plan for, didn’t budget for,” he said. “It’s yet another expense from DoD, that takes money away from other critical needs.”