WASHINGTON (AP) — In a sweltering capital threatened by storms, the traditional Fourth of July parade Thursday served as a warm-up act to a distinctly nontraditional evening event at the Lincoln Memorial, where President Donald Trump planned to command the stage against the backdrop of a show of military muscle.
Protesters unimpressed by his “Salute to America” program inflated a roly-poly balloon depicting Trump as an angry, diaper-clad baby.
By adding his own, one-hour production to festivities that typically draw hundreds of thousands anyway, Trump set himself up to be the first president in nearly seven decades to address a crowd at the National Mall on Independence Day. “I will speak on behalf of our great Country!” he said in a morning tweet. “Perhaps even Air Force One will do a low & loud sprint over the crowd.”
But thunderstorms threatened, with periods of “torrential rain” forecast by the National Weather Service and a flash-flood watch in effect.
Trump set aside a historic piece of real estate — a stretch of the Mall from the Lincoln Monument to the midpoint of the reflecting pool — for a mix of invited military members, Republican and Trump campaign donors, and other bigwigs. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, Barack Obama and Trump held inaugural concerts and protesters swarmed into the water when supporters of Richard Nixon put on a July 4, 1970, celebration, with the president sending taped remarks from California.
Aides to the crowd-obsessed Trump fretted about the prospect of empty seats at his event, said a person familiar with the planning who was not authorized to be identified. Aides scrambled in recent days to distribute tickets and mobilize the Trump and GOP social media accounts to encourage participation for an event hastily arranged and surrounded with confusion.
In the shadow of the Washington Monument, the anti-war organization Codepink erected a 20-foot tall “Trump baby” balloon to protest what it called the president’s co-opting of Independence Day.
“We think that he is making this about himself and it’s really a campaign rally,” said Medea Benjamin, the organization’s co-director. “We think that he’s a big baby. … He’s erratic; he’s prone to tantrums; he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. And so this is a great symbol of how we feel about our president.”
The balloon remained tied down at the Mall because park officials restricted the group’s permission to move the balloon or fill it with helium, Benjamin said.
A small crowd gathered to take pictures with the balloon, which drew Trump supporters and detractors.
Kevin Malton, a Trump supporter from Middlesboro, Kentucky, came with his son for the holiday and took pictures with the balloon. He was glad to see the mix of political beliefs at the event, he said. “Even though everybody has different opinions,” he said, “everybody’s getting along.”
In a message marking the 243rd anniversary of the Founding Fathers’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Trump called the document a milestone that “cast off the shackles of tyranny.”
Weather permitting, Trump planned showcase flyovers by warplanes, aircraft in the presidential Air Force One and Marine One fleet and the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team, as well as make his remarks. A larger than usual fireworks display was assembled.
Trump had sounded a defensive note Wednesday, tweeting that the 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 expected for the holiday flyover. “We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats.”
Trump glossed over the expense of shipping tanks and fighting vehicles to Washington by rail and guarding them for several days, and other costs.
Not since 1951, when President Harry Truman spoke before a large gathering on the Washington Monument grounds to mark the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has a commander in chief made an Independence Day speech to a sizable crowd on the Mall.
One of the Democrats running for president said “this business of diverting money and military assets to use them as a kind of prop, to prop up a presidential ego, is not reflecting well on our country.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a Navy Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2014.
Some of the Republican president’s supporters welcomed his stamp on the holiday.
Rachel McKenna of McKinney, Texas, said her relatives have served in the military, and she thought it was important to say “‘We love you guys, we appreciate everything you do,’ and I love the fact I can see that,” as she pointed to the Bradley fighting vehicle positioned near the Lincoln Memorial.
“I’ve never ever seen one,” she said. “I just think it’s so cool.”
Two groups, the National Parks Conservation Foundation, and Democracy Forward want the Interior Department’s internal watchdog to investigate what they say maybe a “potentially unlawful decision to divert” national parks money to Trump’s “spectacle.”
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. This 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.
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.
Associated Press writers Kali Robinson, Zeke Miller, Kevin Freking, Matthew Daly, Ellen Knickmeyer and Christopher Rugaber contributed to this report.
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