In full executive producer mode, President Trump will put on the "show of a lifetime" for the hundreds of thousands of revelers who are flocking to the National Mall to witness the “Salute to America” –Trump’s Fourth of July spectacle replete with displays of the United States’ military might, a demonstration by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight squadron and, of course, a healthy dose of controversy.
The “Salute to America" will be capped off by a speech from Trump in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where the president will be flanked by two Bradley fighting vehicles with two 60-ton Army Abrams battle tanks being positioned on or near the National Mall.
“People are coming from far and wide to join us today and tonight for what is turning out to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history of our Country, SALUTE TO AMERICA, an all day event at the Lincoln Memorial, culminating with large scale flyovers of the most modern and advanced aircraft anywhere in the World. Perhaps even Air Force One will do a low & loud sprint over the crowd,” Trump said in two tweets Thursday morning.
Under White House direction, the Pentagon was arranging for an Air Force B-2 stealth bomber and other warplanes to conduct flyovers. There will be Navy F-35 and F-18 fighter jets, the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team, Army and Coast Guard helicopters and Marine V-22 Ospreys.
And with $750,000 worth of fireworks donated on top of the approximately $271,000 worth generally allocated for the Fourth of July events, administration officials say that this year’s display will be roughly twice as long as last year’s and will include a number of new elements, such as an enormous American flag and the words “U.S.A.” spelled out in the sky.
The president’s Independence Day extravaganza, however, has not been absent of discord – with Trump’s opponents slamming him on everything from the cost of the event to the perceived exploitation of the holiday for a political purpose.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who is among the lawmakers overseeing the Interior Department, which has jurisdiction over the National Mall and federal parks, said it was "absolutely outrageous" that the administration will use park money to help defray Thursday's event costs. The National Park Service plans to use nearly $2.5 million intended to help improve parks nationwide, The Washington Post reported late Tuesday, citing anonymous sources.
"These fees are not a slush fund for this administration to use at will," McCollum said in a statement. She promised a congressional hearing.
Two outside groups, the National Parks Conservation Foundation and Democracy Forward, want the department's internal watchdog to investigate what they say may be a "potentially unlawful decision to divert" national parks money to Trump's "spectacle."
Former high-ranking members of the Armed Forces also weighed on Trump’s celebration, with retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey – a frequent critic of the president – calling the “Salute to America” “narcissistic” and that it will set up “another vile political fight.”
“He’s turning it into a “narcissistic display for his own purpose,” McCaffrey said on MSNBC on Wednesday. “It undoubtedly is a political event which makes everyone uneasy in the Pentagon.”
Trump defended the cost of the event on Wednesday, tweeting that cost "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 Maryland's Joint Base Andrews, home for some of the planes that are to fly over the Mall on Thursday. "We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats."
The White House referred questions about the cost of the military participation to the Pentagon, which said it did not have the answer.
The Air Force said it costs $122,311 an hour to fly a B-2 bomber, which is making the round trip from its home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Officials said the flight will be considered a training event, with the cost already budgeted. The per-hour flying cost of the F-22 fighter is $65,128.
While White House officials have also stressed that Trump's remarks will be patriotic, the president often finds it difficult to stay on any kind of script and, if he veers into the political realm, he could be financially liable.
Trump and the event's organizers could be on the hook to reimburse the government millions of dollars if he goes into campaign mode, in violation of federal appropriations law and the Hatch Act, which bars politicking on government time, said Walter Shaub, who left the Office of Government Ethics in 2017 after clashing with the White House over ethics and disclosure issues.
"There's not a history of disciplined speaking engagements where he sticks to a script," Shaub said of Trump.
Washington has held an Independence Day celebration for decades, featuring a parade along Constitution Avenue, a concert on the Capitol lawn with music by the National Symphony Orchestra and fireworks beginning at dusk near the Washington Monument.
Trump altered the lineup by adding his speech, moving the fireworks closer to the Lincoln Memorial and summoning the tanks and warplanes.
Trump originally wanted a parade with military tanks and other machinery rolling through downtown Washington ever since he was enthralled by a two-hour procession of French military tanks and fighter jets in Paris on Bastille Day in July 2017. Later that year, Trump said he'd have a similar parade in Washington on the Fourth of July 2018, and would "top" the Paris show.
The event ended up being pushed to Veterans Day, which conflicted with one of Trump's trips abroad, before it was scuttled after cost estimates exceeding $90 million were made public.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.