Ever since Donald Trump attended France’s Bastille Day parade in July of 2017, he’s wanted to top it with a military parade of his own. Those plans were scrapped last summer when it became clear that a parade would cost nearly $100 million and destroy the streets of Washington, D.C. But in February of this year, Trump announced a new idea: He’d co-opt the annual July 4 fireworks show on the National Mall to throw a “Salute to America,” complete with a rambling speech, military flyovers, and a Trump rally atmosphere.
Here’s what we know about Trump’s Fourth of July celebration:
What’s the point?
Depends on who you ask. The Interior Department, which has led the planning of the event, calls it a “celebration of America’s military with music, military demonstrations and flyovers.” Of course, Trump claims it’s about celebrating the military (and pulling off “the show of a lifetime”).
Detractors are calling it something different. Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told NBC News that Trump is making a “political rally” out of a day that should be for celebrating America and what it stands for. “Frankly, that’s not what July 4th is about,” he said. “It’s not about politics in the partisan sense — it’s about democracy, it’s about freedom, it’s about individual liberties, it’s about pursuit of happiness.”
But many agree that Trump’s primary motivation is showing up France. Two months after attending the 2017 Bastille Day celebration, Trump told reporters that it was “one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen. It was military might.” Then, in what seemed like a joke at the time, he told French president Emmanuel Macron, “We’re going to have to try to top it.” It was not a joke.
What’s on the agenda?
Trump will give a speech at 6:30 p.m. The fireworks will go off just after 9 p.m. And at some point, there will be military flyovers. Among the jets that will buzz the National Mall are Air Force One and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines will reportedly stand next to Trump as the aircrafts for their respective branches fly over the Mall.
There will also be tanks. On Monday, Trump announced that the Pentagon had approved his request to park tanks near the National Mall for the festivities. The tanks will not be rolling, but will be on “static display,” which is another way to say parked. USA Today spoke to a White House aide who said the preliminary estimate of the cost to transport the tanks was $870,000.
The tanks began arriving in Washington, D.C., early Tuesday. That’s when a photographer snapped this photo of an M1A1 Abrams tank being guarded by military police. According to the AP, the tanks were shipped north from Fort Stewart in Georgia.
Trump said Monday that “brand-new Abrams tanks” and “brand-new Sherman tanks” would appear at the Mall Thursday, which isn’t really possible. While the Abrams tank is still in use, the Sherman went out of service in 1957.
Will other July 4 events still take place?
Yes. The Salute to America is happening at the Lincoln Memorial, with other Independence Day events still scheduled for other parts of Washington. The National Independence Day Parade will move down Constitution Avenue, and the annual A Capitol Fourth concert will still take place on the west lawn of the Capitol. The PBS celebration will feature, among others, Vanessa Williams and Carole King, who made it clear in a tweet that the event she’s participating in is NOT Trump’s.
Is there any precedent for this?
Not really. Presidents typically stay away from July 4 celebrations, with the last one to link himself to the festivities coming in 1970, USA Today reports. That year, Richard Nixon held an “Honor America Day,” which was besieged by Vietnam War protesters, some of whom held a marijuana smoke-in.
Will there be protests?
You know it. Though it won’t be easy for detractors to make themselves seen. Late last week, officials announced a VIP section in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The tickets to access the area were to be distributed by the White House, ensuring that protesters won’t be able to pack the area in front of Trump’s podium. Last week, HuffPost reported that the Republican National Committee is handing out tickets to major donors too.
New York’s Jonathan Chait argued this is more evidence that Trump is afraid of encountering Americans who don’t support him:
Trump’s efforts to control the rally should be seen in the context of his fear that the crowd will boo him. He is advertising the event on his Twitter feed, cordoning off the immediate area around his speech for ticket holders, and giving tickets away to Republican donors. Trump has “requested that the chiefs for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines stand next to him.”
Get it? The service chiefs have to stand next to Trump as human patriotism bodyguards.
Of course, that won’t stop protesters from coming out. The National Park Service has granted Code Pink permission to fly a “Baby Trump” float during the event. But there is a pretty major caveat: The giant balloon cannot be filled with helium, only air.
The havoc Trump’s event is wreaking on D.C. residents might persuade a few more to come out and protest. The Arlington Memorial Bridge will be closed, Reagan National Airport will be closed for 75 minutes, and parks and waterways will be shut down.
How much will it cost?
That’s not entirely clear. The National Park Service is going to have to foot the bill for government workers on the clock July 4, and the Pentagon will obviously have to spend something to pull off all those flyovers. The canceled 2018 Veteran’s Day parade was estimated to cost $92 million. That’s more than the Salute to America will cost, but we don’t yet know how much more.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the National Park Service is diverting nearly $2.5 million to cover the event, but that will only cover part of the cost:
The National Park Service is diverting nearly $2.5 million in entrance and recreation fees primarily intended to improve parks across the country to cover costs associated with President Trump’s Independence Day celebration Thursday on the Mall, according to two individuals familiar with the arrangement.
… The diverted park fees represent just a fraction of the extra costs the government faces as a result of the event, which will include displays of military hardware, flyovers by an array of jets including Air Force One, the deployment of tanks on the Mall and an extended pyrotechnics show. By comparison, according to former Park Service deputy director Denis P. Galvin, the entire Fourth of July celebration on the Mall typically costs the agency about $2 million.
One thing that taxpayers won’t have to foot the bill for is the extra fireworks. Two private companies have donated equipment and labor worth $750,000.
It’s gross, but is it illegal?
There’s no doubt that Trump’s Salute to America is an icky nod to the authoritarian leaders he so openly adores. Even his allies admit that, at least anonymously. “He wants to have a parade like they have in Moscow or China or North Korea,” one anonymous RNC fundraiser told HuffPost.
But it’s not clear if there’s anything illegal about the event, though several commentators have suggested that the involvement of RNC fundraisers is a violation of the Hatch Act, the 1939 law prohibiting most Executive branch employees from engaging in political activity. CREW, a watchdog group that has repeatedly sued members of the administration for violating the Hatch Act, says it will be watching the Salute to America closely.
“Is President Trump trying to hijack the Independence Day celebration on the National Mall by turning it into a taxpayer-funded campaign rally? If he does, the Trump administration will violate federal appropriations law and the Hatch Act,” Walter Shaub, the group’s senior adviser and the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, said in a release.
This post has been updated throughout.