White House aides have reportedly struggled to draw crowds to Donald Trump’s Fourth of July celebrations, with service chiefs for the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps set to skip the planned display of military might.
Despite facing accusations that he is politicizing an important holiday, emulating displays in authoritarian countries and wasting taxpayers’ money, Trump is set to mark Independence Day by delivering a speech about patriotism on the steps of the Lincoln memorial.
The event, which Trump said would be the “show of a lifetime,” will also feature a flyover by Air Force One, a display of tanks and a lengthier-than-usual fireworks display.
In a morning tweet, Trump called the event “SALUTE TO AMERICA” and claimed people “are coming from far and wide to join us today and tonight for what is turning out to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history”.
The Pentagon said the administration has provided 5,000 tickets for Trump’s Independence Day event to the military. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign has also handed passes out to Republican allies and donors.
But White House aides have reportedly struggled to draw crowds to the event because of the last minute arrangements. Congress is not in session, and Washington typically becomes quieter over the holiday, as residents escape the city’s summer heat.
“They started this too late and everyone has plans already,” Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, told Politico, which reported that even top level White House officials were also expected – but not confirmed – to attend.
“Everyone will be there in spirit, but in reality, people planned their July 4th activities weeks ago,” Eberhart said.
Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley and his Navy, Air Force and Marine counterparts will not attend, and instead plan to send deputies. The only service chief set to attend is Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz.
Crowd size is a sensitive subject for the president. A government photographer edited official pictures of Trump’s inauguration to make the crowds seem bigger following a personal intervention from the president, according to investigative documents from the inspector general of the US interior department.
Trump had been angered on the first morning of his presidency by images showing his audience was smaller than Barack Obama’s in 2009. Trump’s White House had falsely claimed he had attracted the biggest ever inauguration audience.
Trump, who has long admired displays of national pride and military strength put on by France, has repeatedly dismissed concerns about the expense and autocratic overtones of the Washington DC event this week.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of
Columbia, accused the president of “militarizing” the traditional celebrations of the
Fourth of July holiday and converting it into a “partisan political extravaganza”.
“Nothing could be more incongruous than seeing tanks on the [Washington National] Mall,” she told CNN.
Codepink, the direct action antiwar protest group, brought the Trump “baby blimp” to Washington’s National Mall on Thursday for a demonstration against the “militarization of July 4” – but was only granted a permit on the condition that it was filled with ordinary air and not helium.
They also planned to bring a “16-ft Trump Robot sitting on a golden toilet” for a festival-style protest that would “include stand-up comedy, a dance party, and an open mic for participants to bring attention to issues that are important to them”.
Democrats have accused the president of staging a campaign rally on what is supposed to be a day of unity. Though the White House has said his remarks would not be political in nature, the president has a history of veering off script with sharp partisan attacks even at events that are not meant to be overtly political.
“Instead of addressing something like veteran homelessness, he’s spending it on boosting his ego with a parade that’s fundamentally about him and then getting tickets in the hands of wealthy donors for the Republican party. What a waste of money,” Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro said on CBS This Morning on Wednesday.
Fellow Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders also weighed in with criticism: “This is what authoritarians do: @realDonaldTrump is taking $2.5m away from our National Park Service to glorify himself with a spectacle of military tanks rolling through Washington,” he wrote in a tweet.
Trump downplayed the expense.
“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth. We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel,” he posted on Twitter on Wednesday. “We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!” Andrews is the name of a nearby military base.
The Fourth of July holiday celebrates the anniversary of US founders’ declaring independence from Britain in 1776.