WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s plan to roll out U.S. military tanks and fighter jets as part of his Fourth of July address has sparked sharp criticism from Democratic legislators and government watchdogs who say the display runs counter to the nonpartisan spirit of the celebration.
On Tuesday, as a line of four 60-ton tanks and other military vehicles arrived at a Washington, D.C. rail yard, White House officials pushed back against critics who have said the president’s “Salute to America” event will amount to a taxpayer funded campaign rally on the National Lawn.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox Business Network Trump “is not going to get political” when he delivers a 6:30 p.m. speech Thursday from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech will come before the traditional fireworks display that has long drawn large crowds.
Ethics experts have warned that if Trump were to insert campaign rhetoric into his speech he could violate federal laws prohibiting government officials from advocating political positions using taxpayer resources or while working on the taxpayer's dime.
The president, whose original plans for a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue were scuttled last year amid public outcry over the estimated $92 million cost, tweeted Tuesday that his July Fourth showcase of military vehicles would highlight “the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World.”
On Monday, Trump told reporters, “We're going to have some tanks stationed outside. You've got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks, so we have to put them in certain areas.”
City officials who have long handled the planning of the Fourth of July celebration along with the Department of the Interior, tweeted their opposition to Trump’s plans.
“We have said it before, and we’ll say it again: Tanks, but no tanks,” the D.C. City Council tweeted on Monday. The tweet included a March 2018 memo from the Pentagon advising “no tanks” on local roads “to minimize damage to local infrastructure.”
Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat whose Northern Virginia district includes suburbs just outside Washington, said Trump should have to shoulder the cost if any roads are damaged by the 60-ton tanks.
“If Trump is going to turn this event into another partisan rally to boost his own frail ego, he must reimburse US taxpayers for any damage he causes,” Beyer tweeted Tuesday.
The Pentagon and the White House have not disclosed how much Thursday’s display will cost taxpayers. On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the ranking Democrat on a key Senate appropriations subcommittee, accused the Department of the Interior of ignoring requests for information about he cost of the event.
"The American people deserve to know how much of their money the president is spending to turn their July 4th 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."
Trump’s plans also came under scrutiny Tuesday after news reports emerged that tickets to a VIP section of the event were being given to the Republican National Committee and top administration officials.
Asked about the concerns of city officials and lawmakers, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway accused reporters of attempting to “politicize” the holiday celebration.
"The public is welcome to come and celebrate our great country, the greatest democracy, the Constitution, all the Amendments … I'm not going to allow you to politicize it,” Conway said.
A Monmouth University poll released Monday found that 52 percent of Americans surveyed supported the idea of Trump delivering a July Fourth address. But only 20 percent of respondents knew about Trump’s plans.
Of those who were aware of Trump’s speech, 56 percent said they disapproved compared with 37 percent who supported his plans, according to the poll of 751 adults conducted between June 12 and 17.
"Trump’s plan to speak in the middle of the National Mall is flying under the radar right now," said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute."Those who know about it, though, seem to worry that it could detract from a day when the nation comes together to celebrate our founding.”