President Trump famously admired the nationalistic display of military might he witnessed in Paris on Bastille Day two years ago. “It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” Trump said at a meeting with French President Emanuel Macron a few weeks after watching the jets soar over the Champs-Élysées. “We’re going to have to try to top it,” he added.
Trump has been pushing the Pentagon to hold a big parade ever since. An event tentatively scheduled for Veterans’ Day last year was canceled as cost estimates soared, with Trump accusing city officials in Washington of seeking to profit from the event. But on the Fourth of July this year the president will finally get the event he has been dreaming of for years. (In an interview with The New York Times in July 2017, Trump said he had thought about a military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue long before witnessing the Bastille Day celebration in Paris. “I’ve always thought of that. I’ve thought of it long before,” he said.)
What is it, exactly? The White House says the event, which will occur before the annual Independence Day celebration, is meant to honor the U.S. military. “The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!”
The president will deliver a televised speech at 6:30 p.m. and fireworks will commence at about 9. Heavy military equipment including tanks reportedly will be on “static display” on the National Mall, presumably remaining parked to avoid damaging the streets, and aircraft from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will fly overhead, with the commanders of each branch standing next to Trump as their service hymns play. There will also be a parade along 10 blocks of Constitution Avenue, featuring marching bands, fife and drum corps, floats, military units, balloons and drill teams.
Why is it controversial? The parade has quickly become something of a Rorschach test, with Trump and his supporters seeing a very different event than his critics. “Our July 4th Salute to America at the Lincoln Memorial is looking to be really big. It will be the show of a lifetime!”, Trump tweeted on Wednesday. But critics say the event is politicizing and militarizing an event that has usually avoided overt political themes, presidential speeches and displays of military firepower. And some accuse Trump of placing himself squarely at the center of the event, using troops as props for his own self-aggrandizement.
Access has also become an issue, with the Republican Party reportedly distributing VIP passes to donors and political appointees for the event. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) told The Washington Post. “No ticketed political event should be paid for with taxpayer dollars.”
USA Today’s David Jackson said that the Independence Day celebrations have generally avoided an overt connection to the sitting president. The last time that happened was 1970, when President Nixon staged an "Honor America Day" on the Fourth featuring evangelist Billy Graham and comedian Bob Hope, at a time when the nation was bitterly divided by the war in Vietnam.
How much will it cost? The White House has not provided a breakdown of the costs of the event, but the Veterans Day parade that was canceled in 2018 had a cost estimate of $92 million, though it’s not clear how similar that would have been to this year’s celebration. The typical annual fireworks show on the National Mall costs roughly $2 million. While Trump is adding more fireworks to the show, the two vendors involved are donating about $750,000 worth of fireworks, which should cover most of the additional cost for pyrotechnics.
Even so, Trump is adding additional features to the celebration that have a significant military component and cost.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the National Park Service will use nearly $2.5 million in user fees intended to be used for park maintenance to cover costs associated with Trump’s event. A White House aide said it will cost about $870,000 to transport tanks and fighting vehicles from Fort Stewart in Georgia. National Public Radio did a rundown on the costs of operating aircraft that will be deployed, which are substantial. For example, the Boeing 747 often used as Air Force One costs more than $200,000 per hour, while an F-35 costs about $20,000 per hour. (No word, however, on the cost of the “brand new” Sherman tanks Trump promised, which is a bit of a mystery, since the tanks haven’t been produced since 1945 and went out of service in 1957.)
"There's going to be a big price tag for this and the taxpayers will have to pick up the tab," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls spending for such events. Some critics also pointed out the White House was being inconsistent in its approach on military costs, citing Trump’s cancellation of joint military maneuvers with South Korea because they were “tremendously expensive” at $14 million.
Trump defended the cost of the celebration in a tweet Wednesday: “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. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!”