Washington • Democrats and conservation groups are incensed that President Donald Trump is hijacking the traditional Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall — and even more so after a report that the president’s plans will siphon millions from the already-underfunded National Park Service.
Trump calls the event a “Salute to America” with military jet flyovers, bands and even tanks — with the president prominently featured. The typical fireworks show at the Lincoln Memorial has been moved blocks away so Trump can speak from a stage in front of a VIP section of Republican donors, political appointees and supporters.
“Using national park entrance fees to pay for this display of pageantry is absolutely outrageous,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat who heads the House Appropriations subcommittee over the Interior Department.
McCollum noted that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tapped entrance fees to keep parks running during the latest government shutdown in December and January, a move that is now under investigation.
“These fees are not a slush fund for this administration to use at will,” McCollum said. “They are meant to improve our national parks, keep them safe and protected for Americans to enjoy, and are clearly not to be used for a political rally.”
A spokesman for Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resource Committee that oversees the Interior Department, pushed back on the criticism noting that the department always hosts the Fourth of July celebration and will do so again this year.
“If the left takes issue with celebrating the Fourth of July and Betsy Ross, we face issues much greater than a fireworks show,” said spokesman Lee Lonsberry, referring to a controversial decision by Nike to not sell shoes featuring a flag Ross apocryphally designed.
Lonsberry noted that Bishop is sponsoring legislation to address the maintenance backlog by diverting some lease payments and royalties from oil, gas, coal and other energy development on public lands to the national parks. And the spokesman noted that the law allows Trump to use park service funding for an event on national park lands.
“If Democrats want to try and change that, that’s their prerogative,” Lonsberry said.
The National Mall in Washington has always been a place for Americans to celebrate the country’s founding, a gathering capped by fireworks over the iconic monuments.
Trump, though, possibly inspired by a military parade he witnessed in France on Bastille Day 2017, has vowed a more expansive show with flyovers by the highly trained Blue Angels and one of the planes that serves as Air Force One. The Army used trains to bring in two Abrams tanks, two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and an M88 recovery vehicle from Georgia to be displayed on the Mall (though they’ll be trucked to their locations so as not to damage roads).
Trump will address the crowd at some point in the evening. The event is free to the public, though the section closest to the Lincoln Memorial is reserved with tickets being doled out by the Republican National Committee and Trump’s reelection campaign.
The Interior Department didn't confirm the $2.5 million figure but touted the event to honor America.
“The Department of the Interior is committed to providing the American people a fantastic celebration of our nation’s birthday,” said spokeswoman Molly Block. “We are doing so consistent with the department’s mission and historical practices. We hope everyone enjoys the Fourth.”
Trump defended the cost of the show on Twitter.
“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” he wrote, adding that the government already owns the planes, employs the pilots and all it will cost is the fuel.
It's unclear how much the Defense Department is spending to bring in the tanks or for the flights Trump demanded.
New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Interior Department, said it was “unacceptable” to spend taxpayer money on Trump's “lavish” Fourth of July event that is allowing special access for those with political connections.
“The American people deserve to know how much of their money the president is spending to turn their July Fourth celebration into a de facto campaign rally,” Udall said in a statement. “All reports indicate that the president is planning to turn a national day of unity into a day of vanity — trying to use the military for political purposes and doling out perks to his political backers — at the taxpayers’ expense. We need answers.”