WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump has hijacked what for decades had been a nonpolitical Independence Day celebration on the National Mall, packing his ticketed-event speech with political appointees and Republican donors.
The Republican National Committee has been offering major donors tickets to Trump’s speech, as have political appointees at the White House and executive branch agencies.
“He’s going to have tanks out there. It’s going to be cool,” joked one RNC fundraiser on condition of anonymity. He said he received an offer for the free tickets on Friday but did not request any. “He wants to have a parade like they have in Moscow or China or North Korea.”
Trump has been enamored of public displays of military might since he attended the Bastille Day festivities in Paris in 2017. His plan for a massive military parade last year was canceled after a Defense Department estimate became public showing that it would cost $92 million and damage the city’s roads because of the weight of tanks and other equipment.
The current plans for Thursday do not include a parade, but Trump is still pushing for tanks or other military vehicles to be displayed on the National Mall, The Washington Post reported, even though their weight is liable to damage the grass and roads. Flyovers by military planes ― including Air Force One and the Navy’s Blue Angels squadron ― are also planned.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor and expert on fascism, said Trump’s need to display military hardware is a feature of authoritarians throughout history. “He needs to colonize our lives. He needs to colonize our public spaces,” she said, adding that it was “dismaying” that the Pentagon this year failed to thwart Trump’s impulses. “The military has been domesticated. I think the will to resist him has evaporated.”
Groups that advocate for government transparency and ethics, meanwhile, railed against the RNC’s involvement.
“This partisan appropriation of a public event is consistent with the record of an administration that has no regard for lines between personal or partisan interests and its public obligations,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
Jordan Libowitz, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that the event could create legal problems if the federal government is involved in staging what, in essence, becomes a political event benefiting Trump.
“This sounds less and less like a government event and more and more like a campaign rally. Since it doesn’t look like the RNC is picking up the bill, this could lead to some serious legal issues,” Libowitz said.
One senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump’s planned speech will not be partisan. “This speech will not be political. It will be about celebrating our nation’s independence, our flag and our great military,” the official said.
But if past is prologue, Trump is almost certain to mention his reelection effort and attack Democrats. He did both at an “official” visit, as opposed to a campaign event, with the Faith and Freedom Coalition last week. He has attacked Democrats at official visits to military installations, including during his trip to Iraq last year and, most recently, at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Sunday.
“This is not a political speech,” Trump said at Osan, and then he claimed Democrats did not want to give troops new equipment. “They weren’t going to give it to you, folks. They weren’t going to. They want open borders and the hell with the military. That’s not good.”
Another White House aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is not much his staff can do if Trump chooses to ignore a prepared speech and inject campaign-style remarks. “We can only do what we can do,” the aide said.
The White House would not say exactly how many tickets were being distributed and by which groups for Trump’s planned remarks at the Lincoln Memorial early Thursday evening. However, the area eastward from the Lincoln Memorial to about halfway down the reflecting pool will be cordoned off with access regulated by the Secret Service. Such an area constitutes a dozen acres and could accommodate tens of thousands of people.
On Tuesday morning, Trump’s campaign sent out an email to at least the portion of its list in the Washington area, encouraging his supporters to attend his speech.
“We hope you’ll be able to attend as Americans from across the United States gather to celebrate our Nation’s Independence,” the email stated. “The event is open to the public and not a campaign event. Please arrive no later than 5:30 PM to help celebrate our country’s Independence Day!”
The small print at the bottom of the email contains this boilerplate language: “We believe this is an important way to reach our grassroots supporters with the most up-to-date information regarding the efforts of Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., and we’re glad you’re on our team. It’s because of grassroots supporters like you that we will Make America Great Again, and we appreciate your support. Thank you for all that you do!”
It was unclear whether those arriving without a ticket would be permitted in the close-in area inside the Secret Service perimeter, or whether Trump and his aides are getting worried about the size of the turnout.
Neither the Trump campaign nor the RNC responded to HuffPost queries about Tuesday’s invitation.
In past years, presidents have not taken part in Fourth of July celebrations, and the events have been nonpolitical. The only place that required tickets was the west portico of the Capitol overlooking the Mall and a stage for musical performers, and those were distributed by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
That has not happened in the case of Trump’s planned speech. The Democratic National Committee, for example, was not given any tickets to give away, according to a spokesperson. An RNC official, meanwhile, said on condition of anonymity that its distribution of tickets to the Fourth of July celebration is no different from that of other presidential events. “For context, we receive an allotment for other events like White House Christmas Open Houses, Garden Tours in spring and fall, etc.,” the official said.
Those events, however, take place at the White House, the president’s residence, not at a public park like the National Mall.
Trump’s injection of himself into the celebration is inappropriate, said Ben-Ghiat. “The whole point is nonpartisan. It’s a national holiday. And he can’t let that stand. He has to make it about him,” she said.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is suing Trump for violating the Constitution by accepting money from foreign governments through his hotels, said the invitations to donors by a campaign committee he controls will also generate cash for himself.
“Look for the big donors to make appearances alongside major Trump administration figures at the Trump Hotel,” Libowitz said. “It’s already sold out for the 3rd and 4th despite charging double what the other luxury hotels are charging around the holiday.”
Trump continues to own and profit from a hotel blocks from the White House, despite his promise during the campaign to separate himself from his family business. The hotel has taken in millions from the RNC, Trump’s reelection campaign, foreign governments and U.S. taxpayers in the last two years.
This article has been updated to include confirmation from the Democratic National Committee that it had not been given tickets to distribute, and Tuesday’s Trump campaign email.