WASHINGTON — The military hardware is moving into place. So are the protesters. And President Donald Trump is promising the “show of a lifetime” on the National Mall for the Fourth of July.
Trump is marshalling tanks, bombers and other machinery of war for this year’s Independence Day celebration. It’s an event that is traditionally light on military might, and critics have accused the president of using America’s military as a political prop.
Trump pushed back Wednesday against complaints about the cost of the extravaganza, tweeting that the expenses “will be very little compared to what it is worth.”
Under White House direction, the Pentagon was arranging for an Air Force B-2 stealth bomber and other warplanes to conduct flyovers of the celebration on the National Mall. There will be Navy F-35 and F-18 fighter jets, the Navy Blue Angels aerial acrobatics team, Army and Coast Guard helicopters and Marine V-22 Ospreys.
The Pentagon said it had no overall estimate of the cost of the military’s participation. The Air Force said it costs $122,311 an hour to fly a B-2 bomber, which is making the trip from its home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and back. Officials said this will be considered a training event, with the cost already budgeted. They said the per-hour flying cost of the F-22 fighter is $65,128.
Two Bradley fighting vehicles were in place Wednesday near the Lincoln Memorial, where Trump will deliver a speech for the Independence Day celebration. In addition, two 60-ton Army Abrams battle tanks were sent to Washington by rail to be positioned on or near the National Mall.
Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety in Washington D.C., said the city expects the federal government to pay for any damage to streets or bridges from moving the tanks. Civil engineers will assess the roads and bridges after the holiday to determine if any damage has been done.
Donahue said the city had little choice but to accept the tanks and other heavy equipment, despite objections from members of the City Council.
“We’re not consulted on these decisions, we’re not asked to approve them,” he said. “We don’t have the jurisdiction to say, ‘No, we don’t want tanks.'”
The council tweeted “Tanks, but no tanks,” adding that the Pentagon itself said last year that a tank’s steel tracks could damage city roadways. Also scheduled to make appearances over the Mall are the presidential Air Force One and Marine One aircraft.
Today’s festivities also will include a parade in the late morning and early afternoon, and a concert at the Capitol.
The fireworks valued at $750,000 this year will span 35 minutes after a donation by two pyrotechnic companies. Because of the flyovers, the Federal Aviation Administration will suspend commercial air traffic at Reagan National Airport near Washington for the first time during a July 4th celebration. The FAA said flights would be affected again during the fireworks display.
Trump will reserve space for special guests — the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee have received tickets, while the Department of Defense, with 5,000 tickets of its own, will send several top officials.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that the acting defense secretary, Mark Esper, and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be in attendance.
Many other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and service secretaries, however, had planned leaves or were on official travel and were sending deputies in their place.
Meanwhile, protesters have a permit to display an inflatable version of the president that depicts him as a baby in a diaper. A similar blimp has greeted Trump on trips to London, but the Washington version won’t be allowed to leave the ground.
THRILLED, NOT SO THRILLED
Trump, casting the event as a “Salute to America,” tweeted Wednesday that the show at the Lincoln Memorial “is looking to be really big. It will be the show of a lifetime!”
A day earlier, he tweeted that military leaders are “thrilled” to participate. Pentagon officials referred questions to the White House.
“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. “Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!”
But some retired and active-duty military officers, and, privately, some Defense Department personnel said the participation of the military in the event appears to politicize the armed forces on a day when the nation traditionally toasts its independence in a nonpartisan environment.
“Put troops out there so we can thank them — leave tanks for Red Square,” said Gen. Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general and former head of U.S. Central Command, who until earlier this year served in the Trump administration as a special envoy to help resolve disputes in the Persian Gulf.
Two Defense Department officials said the vision for a relatively small contribution from the military was greatly expanded over the past two weeks.
A third official said the ceremony would cost the military well over $1 million and that many in the Pentagon saw it as a waste of resources and money.
Originally, 1,000 troops were supposed to attend the event, but that number was whittled down to 300 — including about a dozen who were ordered to build a platform for the tanks to keep from damaging the ground beneath, one of the department officials said. Another military official said troops also will disassemble the tank stands and clean up at 2 a.m. Friday, after the celebration ends.
Some military units stationed in the capital region are having difficulty getting enough service members to carry out these tasks on such short notice because many of them are already on leave for the holiday.
The service songs for each branch of the military will be played while aircraft soar above.
“This is raw politicization,” said Loren Dejonge Schulman, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Pentagon and White House official during President Barack Obama’s administration. She said in an email exchange that Trump’s use of the military appears to be less about honoring the men and women serving in uniform than about trying to “brag to and humor” his political cronies.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said, “Mr. Trump is hijacking the celebration and twisting it into a taxpayer-funded, partisan political rally that’s more about promoting a Trumpian cult of personality than the spirit of American independence and freedom.” McCollum, who chairs the Interior Appropriations subcommittee, said the Interior Department and the Pentagon have not answered multiple requests for details on how much the event will cost.
White House officials sought to counter the criticism by stressing that the president would deliver a patriotic speech at the Lincoln Memorial during an event that he has billed as honoring the U.S. armed forces.
The administration undercut its own assertion of it being a nonpolitical event, however, when senior presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway said the speech will highlight “the success of this administration in opening up so many jobs for individuals, what we’ve done for veterans,” in addition to celebrating democracy, patriotism and the military.
A fundamental feature of the military’s role in American democracy is its insulation from politics, which is meant to ensure the armed forces’ loyalty to the Constitution rather than to an individual elected leader. That is why, for example, members of the military are not allowed to participate in political campaigns, and why Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, slow-walked a White House plan for a Veterans Day military parade last year.
Trump had wanted a military parade of tanks and other equipment in Washington after he watched a military parade on Bastille Day in Paris in 2017. His plan eventually was scuttled, partly because of cost. Local officials objected at that time, too.
Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor, Darlene Superville, Chris Rugaber, Matthew Daly, Deb Riechmann and Ellen Knickmeyer of The Associated Press; by Josh Wingrove, Jennifer Jacobs, Margaret Talev, Bill Allison and Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News; and by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.
Soldiers get a Bradley fighting vehicle positioned near the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday in preparation for the Independence Day celebration in the nation’s capital.
Law enforcement officials from various agencies conduct security preparations at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday.
A Section on 07/04/2019
Print Headline: Fourth festivities in D.C. take on military mantle
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