Trump's planned Independence Day 'Salute to America' draws flak from military, govt officials

Those in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Independence Day offered mixed reactions about military tanks that are on display for President Donald Trump's planned July Fourth speech.
A Bradley Fighting Vehicle at the Lincoln Memorial while preparations were underway for an Independence Day celebration in Washington, on July 3, 2019.
A Bradley Fighting Vehicle at the Lincoln Memorial while preparations were underway for an Independence Day celebration in Washington, on July 3, 2019.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Two Bradley armoured fighting vehicles rumbled into place on Wednesday (July 3) in front of the Lincoln Memorial, to be joined later by two Abrams tanks parked nearby. Cranes were putting into place the scaffolding for Jumbotron screens. And workers raced to finish a red, white and blue stage where United States President Donald Trump will preside over one of the most unusual Fourth of July celebrations the capital has known.

The audience for Mr Trump's speech will include thousands of troops assembled by the White House to create a made-for-television moment in which the nation's commander in chief is surrounded by the forces that he leads.

Weather permitting, the traditional songs for each branch of the military will be played while their officers stand by the President's side and a procession of aircraft, including Air Force One and the Blue Angels, roars through the skies overhead. Hundreds of guests, many of them hand-picked by the Republican National Committee, will watch from bleachers in a VIP section erected close to the podium.

"It will be the show of a lifetime!" the President posted on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

But Mr Trump's decision to turn Washington's annual Fourth of July celebration into a kind of Trump-branded rally for America has drawn criticism from Democrats, top representatives of the city government and many military officials, who believe the President is using the troops and their gear as political props.

"Put troops out there so we can thank them - leave tanks for Red Square," said General Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general and former head of US Central Command, who until this year served in the Trump administration as a special envoy to help resolve disputes in the Persian Gulf.

Ms Muriel Bowser, Washington's mayor, said displaying tanks and heavy equipment was "not the American way" of honouring the military.

The Fourth of July in Washington is usually celebrated without participation from the occupant of the Oval Office or any political overtones: with a parade down Constitution Avenue, a concert in front of the Capitol and fireworks over the National Mall, accompanied by the National Symphony. Those separate events will continue as planned.

But this year, those traditions ran headfirst into Mr Trump's desire to replicate the spectacle of grand military parades in other nations, a vision that he has pursued since 2017, when he watched thousands of soldiers marching down the Champs-Elysees alongside scores of tanks during a Bastille Day celebration in Paris.

The President, who declared the French event to be one of the "greatest parades I've ever seen", originally wanted a similar show of military might in Washington on Veterans Day, but it was derailed last August after objections by the city's officials, concerns from the Pentagon and a price tag of more than US$90 million (S$122 million).

Instead, Mr Trump has ordered the last-minute transformation of the traditional activities of Independence Day into what he calls "a celebration of America" and that critics call a celebration of Donald Trump.

The White House's plans - including the demonstration of the country's military prowess - have put the Pentagon in a bind, forcing officials to snap to the orders from their commander in chief while also trying to sidestep the inevitable accusation that they are willingly joining Mr Trump in politicising the troops as well as a national holiday.

Ms Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior Defence Department official during the Obama administration, said Mr Trump - with the elaborately stage-managed display of military equipment - has inaccurately implied that Pentagon leaders support the parade and its showmanship.

"They owe it to the American people to correct the record," said Ms Schulman, now a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security. "The parade is clearly about glorifying the President."

 
 
 

On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that Acting Defence Secretary Mark Esper and General Joseph F. Dunford Jr, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would join Mr Trump at the festivities. 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.

Mr Trump had mused about hosting a smaller military-themed parade on Independence Day. Pentagon brass kept quiet and hoped the idea would go away, according to one Defence Department official, who spoke about the internal discussions on the condition of anonymity.

But in early June, the White House called, and with less than 30 days before July 4, Pentagon officials started drawing up a plan. Two Defence 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 that the ceremony would cost the military well over US$1 million and that many in the Pentagon saw it as a waste of resources and money at a time that the US faced real threats around the world, from Iran to North Korea.

One million dollars is a tiny sliver of the Defence Department annual budget of more than US$700 billion, and it is unclear what the President's salute to the armed forces will cost American taxpayers.

But critics said that shifting even a small amount of money away from the Pentagon's primary mission in order to satisfy the President's whims is wrong. It has already forced the National Park Service to divert US$2.5 million from other park uses, according to a person familiar with the decision. The Washington Post first reported the diversion of funds.

On Wednesday, the President said on Twitter that what the nation will experience will be worth the price.

"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 said, referring to the Air Force base near Washington from where the flyover will be staged.

"We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!"

Throughout the day on Wednesday, Park Service employees and nearly three dozen Marines and Army soldiers raced to get ready for the presidential show. Some military units stationed in the capital region had difficulty getting enough troops to carry out the preparations on such short notice because many troops are already on leave for the holiday.

As workers erected a staged draped in red, white and blue, audio technicians tested some of the musical playlist: the "Star Wars" theme, "Hail to the Chief," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "God Bless the USA".

Hundreds of yards of cyclone fencing fanned out from the memorial down the National Mall including several lengths installed across the width of the Reflecting Pool by security guards splashing through knee-deep water as a family of ducks looked on.

Pentagon officials said Mr Trump insisted on including the tanks and armoured vehicles in the celebration, prompting a scramble among officials at Fort Stewart in Georgia to move the vehicles to Washington and position them around the Lincoln Memorial instead of parading them down streets and over bridges that would be damaged under the heavy load.

But the two 70-tonne Abrams tanks trucked from Fort Stewart were still deemed too heavy to roll onto the delicate apron of the Lincoln Memorial and will remain confined to the asphalt road behind it. Mr Trump will salute America in sight of the two more diminutive, 30-tonne Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, painted in woodland camouflage, their treads festooned in navy blue drapes.

But all the preparations could be upended if the weather in Washington refuses to cooperate. Forecasts for July 4 predicted the usual hot and steamy start to the day, followed by a more than 50 per cent chance of thunderstorms, possibly including lightning. Such storms could cause the Pentagon to call off the flyovers that Trump wants so badly.

Perhaps anticipating such an outcome, administration officials began pointing fingers at one another and assigning blame in case of disappointing attendance or any other unforeseen complications. Among the major items that were not taken care of more than a week ago was the printing of thousands of tickets, people familiar with the planning said.

The White House and the Interior Department each believed the other fell down on the job of the planning. The Defence Department, where several officials consider the military display to be unseemly, was prepared to blame all other departments, an administration official said.