WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is wary of it. The city of Washington openly opposed it. And even some White House officials wonder whether a speech meant to be apolitical will stay that way — and whether crowds will materialize to watch it.
With that raft of concern as its backdrop, President Donald Trump’s pet project — an Independence Day celebration of the military — will proceed in extravagant fashion on Thursday (unless, of course, it rains). And that’s a sharp change from how the holiday has been marked in the nation’s capital by previous presidents from either party.
“It will be the show of a lifetime!” Trump declared optimistically a day before.
The spectacle is likely to delight many Americans who view the military as one remaining unifying force for pride in a country divided along political, racial and economic lines. But it’s also drawn skepticism and criticism for its costs and political hue.
There will be flyovers of military jets, including a B-2 stealth bomber, F-22 fighter jets and the blue-and-white airliner that usually serves as Air Force One.
Bands will herald the branches of the military with their official march songs. M1 Abrams tanks transported by heavy rail will sit on display, though precisely where will depend on whether the ground can support their weight.
There will be about 750 to 800 military personnel taking part in the celebration, a defense official tells CNN. And that doesn’t include the 900 hundred members of the DC National Guard who have been activated to provide traffic control and security on the streets and in the subway system.
Trump will speak around 6:30 p.m., and there will be a 21-gun salute, according to the defense official. The President will then speak about each military service. He will first talk about the Coast Guard, with his remarks followed by the Coast Guard flyover. This format will be repeated for the Air Force, followed by its flyover, then the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Army. Trump will then make closing remarks and the Navy flight team the Blue Angels will do their demonstration, which will be followed by fireworks.
Trump is hoping for an enormous crowd, and July Fourth reliably draws plenty of people to Washington. But the last time he delivered an address on the National Mall, on Inauguration Day, he was disappointed by the turnout, or at least in the way the turnout was depicted on the news.
That’s left some of his aides working overtime to fill out the space along the Mall where he will speak. It’s not clear that their efforts will be successful, and some people who were offered tickets this week — including donors and administration officials — said they’d already made other plans.
Trump will address the masses in front of Abraham Lincoln’s 19-foot marble likeness, framed by the iconic Doric columns of the 16th president’s memorial. He’ll face a crowd of US military families, patriotic onlookers — and ticketed VIPs, including some of his Republican allies.
It’s all a vastly scaled-up version of how presidents ordinarily celebrate July Fourth, the date American colonists officially served notice to Britain in 1776. Usually the holiday is marked with a picnic for service members and their families on the White House South Lawn, followed by a viewing of fireworks over the Washington Monument.
Presidents haven’t traditionally delivered public remarks, much less an address on the National Mall. And the day hasn’t been marked by such overtly militaristic displays.
That’s caused concern even among US military brass that their ranks could end up politicized, according to people familiar with the matter. In the planning for the event, Pentagon leaders had reservations about putting tanks or other armored vehicles on display, a source with direct knowledge of the situation said.
As the final details come together, several top military chiefs of the individual services are not attending and instead are sending alternates, though some said they had prior plans.
The White House has insisted Trump’s speech will not be political and will instead honor the military and its service to the country. But Trump has a way of turning even official events into political moments, including at military installations, often to the delight of the rank-and-file troops he’s addressing.
And even his own top aide, Kellyanne Conway, told reporters this week that the speech would highlight “the success of this administration.”
The military displays Trump ordered up — which include the flyovers, tanks and other ceremonial units such as the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the US Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”) and the US Marine Corps Silent Drill Team — have led some to compare the event to the authoritarian parades seen in places like China or North Korea.
But Trump’s inspiration was actually a parade in France, which he witnessed with delight on Bastille Day in 2017. He immediately began formulating plans to stage a parade of his own, though cost estimates later caused him to reduce his aspirations to the speech and military pageant that will be seen Thursday.
Through it all, Trump has taken enormous interest in even the smallest details, from the staging to the military equipment on display.
It’s those details that are likely to ratchet up the costs of the event, though the massive fireworks display that will cap the evening has been donated.
Already, the National Park Service is redirecting nearly $2.5 million to help cover costs related to the July 4 extravaganza, according to The Washington Post, money that the paper says is usually “primarily intended to improve parks across the country.”
It’s not clear how much the event will cost altogether, though Trump attempted to downplay the amount on Wednesday.
“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” he wrote on Twitter. “We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!”
That isn’t entirely truthful — the planes used in the flyovers will come from California, Missouri, Kentucky and Florida. And the costs of the event extend well beyond the military equipment.
For example, just the “transparent ballistic armor” used to protect the President during his speech could cost more than $24,000, according to government records.
In Trump’s view, the additional costs of staging the event are worth the show — though what happens to that show if it rains isn’t clear.
Chances of rain for the District should be about 50% on Thursday, with the highest chance from 4 to 9 p.m. ET. The Salute to America events are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET.
It’s still a question whether storms, fueled by the heat and humidity, will form directly over the capital. But if thunderstorms do form above the National Mall, they won’t move much and could lead to a few hours of lightning, strong winds and heavy rain.
A spokesperson for the Department of Interior said in a statement on Wednesday that the events on the National Mall would proceed “rain or shine.”