WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has asked the Pentagon to marshal a broadening array of military hardware, including tanks and fighter jets, to showcase his planned Fourth of July address to the nation – dramatically escalating the gathering’s cost and sparking concerns about the potentially damaging impact on the Mall and other infrastructure.
Trump, who had already ordered up a flyover by military aircraft including Air Force One and the Navy’s Blue Angels, has pressed to expand his “Salute to America” event further with an F-35 stealth fighter and the involvement of Marine Helicopter Squadron One, which flies the presidential helicopter, according to government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. He also pushed to bring military tanks to the site of his planned speech at the Lincoln Memorial, prompting National Park Service officials to warn that such a deployment could damage the site, these individuals said.
Engineers were examining the site this week to determine whether the weight of stationing armored vehicles there would affect the Lincoln Memorial’s underground rooms, according to one individual briefed on the efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Trump told reporters late Monday that “we’re going to have some tanks stationed outside,” following a report about the emerging plans by The Washington Post. He cast the spectacle as part of a Fourth of July “like no other. It’ll be special.”
But the use of such massive military hardware for Thursday’s celebration sparked sharp criticism from District of Columbia officials, Democratic lawmakers and advocates of the Park Service, who noted the agency already faces an $11 billion maintenance backlog.
The event also will freeze air traffic to and from Reagan National Airport for more than two hours Thursday, from 6:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. for the flyover of military jets and again from 9 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. to accommodate an extended fireworks show. In past years, flights at National have not been affected by the fireworks, but the launch point moved this year to accommodate Trump’s speech.
The Defense Department has not released any estimates for how much the celebration could cost. But the use of numerous aircraft could drive it well into the millions of dollars when counting fuel and maintenance.
The F-35 costs about $30,000 per hour to fly, according to Pentagon estimates. Each Blue Angel jet costs at least $10,000 per hour to operate, and the cost of flying an Air Force One jet is more than $140,000 per hour.
The cost of a military parade Trump had planned for last year was about $92 million, including $50 million in Defense Department costs, defense officials said at the time. The parade was scuttled after the potential costs became public.
At least 300 service members are slated to participate Thursday, primarily from military bands and drill teams, but that number could rise as additional military aircraft and other flourishes are added to the event.
Other details of the July 4 celebration remain up in the air with just days to go. White House officials plan to give out tickets for attendees to sit in a VIP section and watch Trump’s speech but did not develop a distribution system before much of the staff left for Asia last week, according to two administration officials. Officials also are still working on other key crowd management details, such as how to get attendees through magnetometers in an orderly fashion.
Traditionally, major gatherings on the Mall, including inauguration festivities and a jubilee commemorating the start of the new millennium, have featured a designated event producer. But in this case, the producer is the president himself.
Trump has demonstrated an unusual level of interest in this year’s Independence Day observance, according to three senior administration officials. He has received regular briefings about it from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and has weighed in on how the pyrotechnics should be launched, how the military should be honored and more, according to people briefed on the discussions.
As a result, the administration has organized a far more ambitious celebration than was originally planned, at a yet-to-be specified additional cost to taxpayers. Two major fireworks firms have donated a pyrotechnic show valued at $750,000, for example, but the Park Service will have to pay employees overtime to clean up the remnants of that display. The fireworks also have been moved to a new location in West Potomac Park at Trump’s urging.
“It’s irresponsible to ask the National Park Service to absorb the costs of an additional and political event when there are so many unmet needs in the parks,” Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks Chair Phil Francis, whose group represents current, former and retired Park Service employees and volunteers, said in an email.
Before Trump’s commentary in the Oval Office late Monday, the White House, the Interior Department and the Pentagon had all declined to comment publicly on the emerging plans.
Trump has been fixated since early in his term with putting on a military-heavy parade or other celebration modeled on France’s Bastille Day celebration, which he attended in Paris in 2017. Trump angrily backed off plans for the grand Veterans Day parade he was planning for Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018 amid concerns from D.C. officials over the costs, including potential road damage from military vehicles.
Abrams tanks – which Trump referred to as “Abram” tanks in his remarks – weigh more than 60 tons and are usually transported over long distances by heavy rail. Trump also said “we have the brand new Sherman tanks,” which have not been in use by the American military since the 1950s.
Earlier Monday, the D.C. Council reiterated its opposition to driving tanks on the city’s streets, tweeting, “We have said it before, and we’ll say it again: Tanks, but no tanks.” In the tweet, the council posted the image of a March 8, 2018, memo in which the Pentagon cautioned against using tanks in the military parade Trump had envisioned, saying, “consideration must be given to minimize damage to local infrastructure.”
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., tweeted that the administration was ignoring the views of local residents. “Risking damage to local infrastructure and dumping huge piles of taxpayer money onto the never-ending bonfire of Donald Trump’s vanity. My constituents and the other people who live here overwhelmingly do NOT want this.”
Trump’s decision to transform the nation’s long-standing Fourth of July celebration provided an opportunity for firms such as Fireworks By Grucci, the family-run Long Island company that has produced shows to celebrate Independence Day in major cities around the world as well as ones at different Trump properties. As soon as the president tweeted about the idea in February, the firm’s president, Felix “Phil” Grucci Jr. , recalled in a phone interview, he began sketching out a possible show.
“I made some design renders for what we would do,” Grucci said, adding that he had expected there would be a designated point person for the show, as there has been for other federal observances.
“We were originally thinking there would be an announcement of what the project would be for the event,” he added.
Instead, Grucci – who has teamed up with Phantom Fireworks CEO Bruce Zoldan, a major supplier of consumer fireworks in the United States – reached out directly to the White House, along with other federal officials. Grucci said he did not recall the names of his firm’s White House contacts but said he did not speak directly to the president.
The Park Service already had a multiyear contract with Garden State Fireworks to launch fireworks on the Mall for the Fourth of July. While the cost varies per year, it was $271,374 in 2018.
Administration officials discussed whether they could cancel the existing contract to accept the new donation and save taxpayers money, according to two government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. But they concluded they could not break off the agreement with Garden State, these officials said, and instead opted to provide a show that will be roughly twice as long as last year’s.
“There was always a question of how the performance we were designing and envisioning . . . would integrate with the existing Park Service show,” Grucci said. “We weren’t thinking we were going to replace that performance at any means.”
The upcoming pyrotechnics show will include several new elements, including a massive American flag and “U.S.A.” spelled out in the sky.
The only comparable event on the Mall in recent decades was “America’s Millennium: A Celebration for the Nation,” an effort commissioned by President Bill Clinton and then-first lady Hillary Clinton to mark the start of the 21st century. The festivities, organized by their friend and fundraiser Terry McAuliffe and White House social secretary Capricia Marshall, took place Dec. 31, 1999, and Jan. 1, 2000, and included a concert on the Mall, an appearance by the Clintons, a fireworks show and presentations at multiple museums.
McAuliffe said in an interview that the effort raised roughly $4 million in private donations and was closely coordinated with the Park Service and other federal agencies. But he emphasized that it was different from “Salute to America,” because the Clintons played only a modest role in it.
“The Clintons did not take over a decades-, century-old celebration of the nation and insert themselves in the middle of it,” he said, adding that the president did not weigh in on any of the decisions and that Hillary Clinton initiated the event only because other countries were preparing similar celebrations.
“Once she knew it was up and running, she was not involved in it at all,” said McAuliffe, who went on to serve as Virginia’s governor. “They showed up for the day and were very happy.”
In a phone interview last week, Zoldan said that he hoped “Salute to America” would bring people together rather than prove divisive.
“We wanted to do it as a gift to America,” Zoldan said. “We wanted to give back for this special great time to do bring people together again, by celebrating America’s birthday.”
Anti-Trump protesters, including the group Code Pink, are negotiating with Park Service officials over whether a massive “Trump Baby” balloon they want to fly will comply with flight restrictions that will be in place over the Mall during the Fourth.
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The Washington Post’s Lori Aratani contributed to this report.
Video: While speaking to reporters inside the Oval Office, President Trump went into further details of planned 4th of July celebrations on July 1.(The Washington Post)