Trump’s controversial “Salute to America” July Fourth event, explained

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Set-up continues on July 1, 2019, for President Donald Trump’s “Salute to America” event on Independence Day.

At long last, Trump is getting his DC military celebration. Watchdog groups aren’t happy about it.

President Donald Trump is set to address the nation on July Fourth at 6:30 pm ET from the Lincoln Memorial as part of his unusual, controversial “Salute to America” event.

While Trump relentlessly hyped the event on Twitter in the days leading up to the holiday, tanks were transported through the streets of DC on Tuesday evening in scenes that, for some, evoked images of countries ruled by militarized regimes. Others, however, characterized the presence of tanks in the capital city as a mere “holiday photo-op.” Meanwhile, watchdog groups raised concerns that the whole thing is a massive abuse of public resources for the benefit of Trump and the Republican Party.

For Trump — who often conflates support for him personally with patriotism, and vice versa — “Salute to America” will ostensibly be a celebration of the country in general, and in particular of the military build-up he’s overseen as president. Critics, on the other hand, see it as a fundamentally un-American glorification of militarism.

In any event, the spectacle of Trump delivering a primetime speech at the Lincoln Memorial as part of typically non-partisan July Fourth festivities promises to be a memorable one.

What’s happening and how to watch

Trump’s “Salute to America” event is set to parallel to the capital city’s traditional Fourth of July celebration, which will still be taking place along other parts of the National Mall. Those celebrations, per usual, will include a parade, concerts, and fireworks — teeing up what will likely be a confusing, jam-packed security professional’s worst nightmare.

According to a press release from the Department of the Interior, Trump’s event begins at 6:30 pm and will include the president “honor[ing] America’s armed forces with music, military demonstrations, flyovers and much more. Participants include the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the U.S. Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”), the Armed Forces Chorus, the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Team, and many others. Gates open at 3 p.m.” At some point Trump is expected to give a speech, and there will be a separate fireworks show after Trump concludes his remarks.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Mall by the Capitol, the traditional “Capitol Fourth Concert” event is scheduled to begin at 8 pm. Featured performer Carole King pointed out on Twitter that the Capitol Fourth Concert is distinct from Trump’s event, which she is not participating in.

“I am NOT participating in t’s political rally,” she wrote.

Trump’s event will be carried live by C-SPAN and on Fox News. Politico reports that MSNBC has decided not to air it live, while CNN’s plans remain unclear.

Trump’s event is open to the public — to a point. The White House has distributed VIP tickets to Trump’s political allies, creating the perception of partisanship. Government watchdog groups and Democratic politicians have raised concerns following a HuffPost report about how “[t]he Republican National Committee has been offering major donors tickets to Trump’s speech, as have political appointees at the White House and executive branch agencies.”

Talking Points Memo later obtained a newsletter from the Maryland GOP indicating that the state party was given a number of tickets to a VIP area close to the stage where Trump is scheduled to deliver his speech. Some tickets have been distributed to military families, but there’s no indication that Democrats have been invited to the VIP area.

Not only does the event have the appearance of a party thrown by Trump for his supporters, but if past is precedent, Trump will almost certainly veer into politics during his speech — as he’s regularly done during other “official” White House speeches that weren’t supposed to be campaign-related, and during visits to American troops abroad. Federal law prohibits the executive branch from using public resources for a political event, but as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s repeated consequence-free violations of the Hatch Act demonstrated, the Trump White House isn’t particularly concerned about those sorts of things.

Trump is finally getting the military celebration in DC he’s long wanted

Although the US military regularly conducts PR events — flyovers at a baseball game, for instance — government-sponsored celebrations of the military like the one being planned for this July 4 aren’t a normal occurrence in the United States. But Trump isn’t a normal president.

Trump’s interest in staging a military parade of sorts dates back to July 2017, when he attended Bastille Day celebrations in France. When French President Emmanuel Macron visited the White House months later, Trump indicated he was interested in having a military parade in DC.

“I think we’re going to have to start looking at that ourselves,” Trump said. “We’re actually thinking about Fourth of July, Pennsylvania Avenue, having a really great parade to show our military strength.”

Planning work began on a military parade of sorts, set for Veterans Day 2018. But last August — as reports swirled that the cost of the event was approaching $100 million — Trump announced on Twitter that the plans were being scuttled, and he tried to pin blame for it on Washington, DC officials.

ABC reported details about the planes that will be taking part in flyovers, weather permitting:

Most of the military aircraft participating in the flyovers will be making roundtrips to the Washington, D.C., area from their bases. They include Air Force F-22s, an Air Force B-2 Stealth bomber from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the 747 that serves as Air Force One from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, two Navy F/A-18Es from Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia, 2 Marine MV-22s from Quantico, Virginia, and the new Marine One VH-92 that isn’t in service yet and will be flown by its manufacturer, Sikorsky.

However, two Navy F-35C Joint Strike Fighters will fly cross country from Lemoore, California, to be in place ahead of Thursday’s events.

And the Hill has details about notable names that will be in attendance — and some that won’t be:

Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and acting Air Force Secretary Matthew Donovan will be at the Independence Day event, according to an announcement from the Pentagon on Wednesday…

Other officials attending the July 4 festivities include U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, Army National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bob Burke, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Stephen Wilson, Marine Corps Development Command Deputy Commandant Lt. Gen. Eric Smith and Lt. Gen. Joseph Martin, the incoming Army vice chief of staff.

Notably absent from the list of attendees is Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Trump’s pick to be the next Joint Chiefs chairman.

The Pentagon said those individuals have previous engagements.

CNN reports that military leaders “have concerns about the politicization” of the event — in particular that Trump, by showcasing military personnel in an event that could turn political, puts them at risk of “violating Defense Department guidelines prohibiting men and women in uniform from engaging in political activity.”

It’s unclear exactly how much “Salute to America” will cost. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that 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 … money that is typically used to enhance the visitor experience either on the Mall or at smaller parks across the country.”

On Twitter, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) cited the Post’s report and described the diversion of funds from the Park Service as “what authoritarians do.” But Trump downplayed it, without acknowledging the full scope of the staffing and logistical costs.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told Vox that he expects “Salute to America” will ultimately cost “well into the millions,” and expressed concern that the Trump administration is abusing public resources for political gain.

“If he gets political during this event that will likely violate both the Hatch Act and the laws that prevent federal appropriations from being used for political gain,” Bookbinder said. “It really has been a small d democratic event in the past, but now VIP tickets are going to allies of the president. This is totally new ground.”

But questions about the propriety of the event are taking place against the arguably even more jarring backdrop of tanks rolling through the nation’s capital city.

“Tanks but no tanks”

We know that the “Salute to America” event will feature flyovers from the Navy’s Blue Angels. More controversial, however, has been Trump’s plan to feature tanks.

During an Oval Office event on Monday, President Donald Trump told reporters that some sort of tank demonstration will indeed be part of the event — but in so doing, he accidentally revealed how seat-of-the-pants the whole thing is.

“We’re gonna have some tanks stationed outside. You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks so we have to put ‘em in certain areas, but we have the brand new Sherman tanks and we have the brand new Abram [sic] tanks,” Trump said.

But there’s just one problem — Sherman tanks haven’t even been in use since the 1950s, so there is no such thing as “brand new” ones. And following Trump’s comments, the New York Times and Washington Post reported that engineers have grave concerns about the damage that heavy tanks could do to road and bridges in the vicinity of the Mall, and perhaps even collapse the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

The DC City Council posted a tweet on Monday saying “Tanks, but no tanks” to Trump’s tanks plan, citing a memorandum prepared by the Department of Defense ahead of last year’s scuttled military celebration that alluded to “damage to local infrastructure” that could result from tanks.

But in a statement sent to Vox on Tuesday, Lindsey Walton, spokesperson for DC Council, said there’s little the city can do to stop Trump’s plans.

“The Council doesn’t have any oversight of 4th of July celebration planning or activities,” Walton said. “The Mayor’s office has oversight regarding police and planning and they are directly involved in those activities with the Federal government. Outside of civil disobedience the Council can not control those activities.”

Indeed, on late Tuesday night, images and videos circulated of heavy tanks being shipped into DC ahead of Trump’s event.

The DC city government has since indicated it expects the federal government to reimburse it for any damage to infrastructure done by the tanks, which could potentially add to the cost of the vent.

Costs aside, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor with expertise in authoritarianism, said the images got her thinking about people who emigrated to the United States to escape the sorts of regimes that allow tanks to roll through their capital cities.

“America has always been a place where people fled other kinds of regimes that have tanks in their capitals as a symbol of despotism,” Ben-Ghiat told me. “Trump is turning this American military might, which in the past as in World War 2 fought against fascism, into a way to glorify himself and further an agenda which is seen as authoritarian.”

CNN’s Ryan Browne, citing defense officials, reported on Tuesday that a “small number of M1 Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles will participate in President Donald Trump’s July Fourth celebrations in Washington on Thursday. … However, they will not parade down Pennsylvania Avenue due to the need to protect roads and bridges.”

“A US defense official said that the current plan is to have a very small number of armored vehicles participate as part of a ‘static display’ at the event on the National Mall,” Browne added. “The vehicles will not be moving thereby reducing the chance of damaging local infrastructure.”

One RNC fundraiser who spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity said Trump “wants to have a parade like they have in Moscow or China or North Korea.”

“It would be unusual if he didn’t use the speech to further his own partisan agenda”

Trump fans, unsurprisingly, are excited about the “Salute to America” event. Trump’s favorite television show, Fox & Friends, urged people on Wednesday to just relax and enjoy it.

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told NBC he’s worried about Trump turning a usually nonpartisan celebration of America into a political rally.

“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,” Hoyer said. “Not about politics, not about polarization, not about focusing on differences. It’s about one nation under god indivisible. And it’s sad that the president’s turning it into — in my opinion and the opinion of many — a political rally.”

Even White House aides doubt Trump will be able to resist the urge to deliver a political speech. One who spoke to the HuffPost on condition of anonymity said “we can only do what we can do.”

Asked what she’ll be watching for on Thursday, authoritarianism expert Ben-Ghiat said, “Trump using the military as a prop for his personality cult.”

“Another is that Trump has shown that he is the president only for some Americans, white Americans,” she added. “July Fourth is supposed to unite and always has united Americans in celebrating our freedom, but it would be unusual if he didn’t use the speech to further his own partisan agenda.”

Unease over the event reportedly extends into the White House as well, but for very different reasons. On Wednesday, Politico reported that administration officials and Trump allies are “wringing their hands over the risk of the hastily arranged event morphing into Trump’s Inauguration 2.0, in which the size of the crowd and the ensuing media coverage do not meet the president’s own outsized expectations for the event.”

Alex Ward contributed to this article.

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