The reality TV president wasn’t made for PBS and the Fourth of July will prove it yet again.
Where usually there’s a Smithsonian-sponsored festival celebrating foreign cultures and a concert broadcast on PBS for Independence Day, this year there will be fighter jets, tanks and a Trump rally — plus protests and politics.
And the biggest fireworks display anyone can remember.
The regular fireworks launch point had to be moved to accommodate President Donald Trump’s new “Salute to America” event at the Lincoln Memorial. That, coupled with military flyovers, means DC airspace will be closed for more than two hours, when in normal years it isn’t closed at all.
One concern of critics who think the Fourth should be about commemorating national unity and independence is that Trump’s event, with its massive VIP section and tickets for political donors, has the sheen of a partisan affair. There will be 15,000 general assembly tickets available for Trump’s July 4 celebration and a total of 500 VIP tickets, according to a person involved with the event.
Closed airspace and unknown costs
But the final preparations are triggering a new wave of concerns about the scale and cost of the event.
Along with the airport closures — officials can’t yet say what the impact will be on flight schedules — the DC National Guard plans to triple the number of troops on the street, from 300 to 900, to provide additional security.
Trains were seen bringing in the tanks, which will be stationary during the event and not rolling around.
There are other impacts, too.
For more than 50 years, the National Mall has hosted a Folk Life Festival on the Mall, with a 10-day series of events that coincides with the Fourth of July focused on a US state and several foreign cultures.
Not this year.
Planning for the annual event fell victim to last winter’s government shutdown and a 10-day program was truncated to just two. It wrapped up over the weekend. A Smithsonian spokesperson said the change had nothing to do with the Salute to America and the festival will return to a 10-day format next year.
Tanks, Blue Angels, Air Force Once
All the more room for Trump’s display of American military might, which won’t be as spectacular as the one he envisioned when he planned, and then scrapped, a Veterans’ Day parade last year.
But it will be at least a nod to the public celebration of military hardware, with tanks on the ground and jets screaming overhead, that Trump has craved since a Bastille Day parade he attended in France in 2017.
Last week we learned the Blue Angels would cancel a planned rest and do a flyover along with a plane that serves as Air Force One when Trump is on board. We also learned there would be a ticketed VIP section, although the event is free to all. On Tuesday, the USO said it would move its annual picnic for military families from the South Lawn of the White House out to the National Mall, too.
Trump confirmed Monday there will be tanks and fighter jets. All of it.
“We’re gonna have a great Fourth of July in Washington, DC,” he told reporters. He’s been invested in the event and gotten regular briefings on its progress.
“It’ll be like no other it’ll be special and I hope follow a lot of people come and it’s going to be about this country and it’s a ‘Salute to America.’ And I’m going to be here and I’m going to say a few words and we’re going to have planes going overhead, the best fighter jets in the world and other planes too. And we’re gonna have some tanks stationed outside.”
But he admitted you can’t just roll tanks into a major American city without being a little rough on the pavement.
“You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks,” he said, adding there would be brand new Sherman tanks and brand new Abrams tanks.
That was confusing, because the Sherman tank, used in World War II, hasn’t been used by the military since the 1950s. Military officials confirmed to CNN there would be a small number of M1 Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles taking part in the event, but they will not be parading down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Trump’s focus on military spending
By the way, ahem, Trump would like a little credit for those tanks and he has pushed to reinvest in them. He visited that factory in Lima, Ohio, earlier this year.
“You know we’re making a lot of new tanks right now,” he said Monday. “We’re building a lot of new tanks in Lima, Ohio — our great tank factory that people wanted to close down until I got elected and I stopped it from being closed down, and now it’s a very productive facility and they do, nobody’s the greatest tank in the world.”
Trump has made his commitment to increased military spending a signature of his time in office.
It’s not at all clear what Trump’s event will cost. Without a parade of service members in uniform, it will clearly be cheaper than the parade he wanted after being impressed by a parade in France. According to the Air Force, the flyovers can be accomplished at no extra cost to the taxpayer if they’re treated as a training mission.
Previously scheduled events
Trump’s celebration won’t supersede all of what normally happens in DC, including the annual parade down Pennsylvania Avenue featuring marching bands in the morning.
Trump will speak at the Lincoln Memorial during an event that starts at 6:30 p.m. ET. Two miles away, at the Capitol building end of the National Mall, the annual A Capitol Fourth concert will begin at 8 p.m. ET.
PBS airs that program, and it features recording artists and celebrities like Carole King, the National Symphony Orchestra and muppets from Sesame Street. King has made clear that she is taking part in the PBS event and not — repeat: not! — the Trump event.
PBS broadcasts the fireworks display along with that concert and they’ll get an extra long and spectacular show thanks to Trump on the other end of the Mall.
With donations from fireworks manufacturers, the fireworks display has been expanded from 20 minutes to 35 and will be larger than the bicentennial celebration in 1976, a Park Service spokesman told the Washington Examiner.
Trump and the National Mall
The Mall has previously featured in two frustrating episodes of Trump’s presidency; comparisons of his less-than-Obama inaugural crowd and then the scrapped plans for a budget-busting $90 million military parade.
Planning for that military parade, which was to feature thousands of service members in uniform alongside their hardware, drew stiff opposition from local politicians in DC, who bristled at the idea of tanks rolling through the streets. They’re no happier about the Trump celebration.
This being the US, where free speech is written into the Constitution, activists from Code Pink have obtained a permit to bring an inflatable likeness of Trump as a baby to a section of the Mall. And anti-Trump veterans plan to troll the President by handing out USS John McCain T-shirts.
So while there won’t be the Smithsonian’s celebration of other cultures this year, there will still be a display of America according to Trump — and all the protests and politics that come along with it.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the start time for “A Capitol Fourth” to 8 p.m.