For the first time in decades, a sitting president will be part of Washington, D.C.’s annual Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall, marking a significant departure from the typically non-partisan event.

The annual bash will still feature a parade, musical performances and a stunning fireworks display to mark Independence Day. But added to this year’s agenda will be a massive military display and a prime time address from Donald Trump.

Several months ago, the U.S. president issued a “save the date” tweet and launched a rebranding of sorts for this year’s celebration, calling it a “Salute to America.”

Trump promised “one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington,” complete with a “major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite president, me!” 

Unlike in Canada, where the prime minister traditionally speaks at July 1 celebrations on Parliament Hill, the festivities in the U.S. capital are historically free from politics. 

In the wake of Trump’s tweet, criticism has been swift, with editorials slamming the president for “trampling” on a non-partisan event with what many expect to be a divisive address, scheduled to take place between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. ET. 

But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that anyone learned the full extent of the president’s plans. 

A worker washes one of two M1A1 Abrams tanks in Washington, D.C. Trump asked the Pentagon for military hardware, including tanks, to be displayed during Thursday’s ‘Salute to America’ celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It includes bringing in military bands and orchestrating multiple flyovers, including by the navy’s Blue Angels, Air Force One and other aircraft from all five branches of the U.S. military. 

There will also be a VIP section front and centre, reserved for dignitaries, family and friends. (Tickets for that section will be distributed by the White House, though it’s unclear exactly who will qualify — something the U.S. Secret Service will be part of policing.) 

“I’m going to be here, and I’m going to say a few words, and we’re going to have planes going overhead — the best fighter jets in the world and other planes, too,” Trump announced Monday. “And we’re going to have some tanks stationed outside.”

Some reports suggest Trump’s plans were inspired by the Bastille Day celebrations he witnessed in France in 2017, which heavily featured the country’s military hardware — essentially a version of the Trump-proposed military parade that was killed after cost estimates came in much higher than expected.

July Fourth usually brings hundreds of thousands of revellers to the U.S. capital. The inclusion of Trump in this year’s celebration, as well as a new location for the fireworks in West Potomac Park to accommodate his speech, means there are watercraft restrictions in place, impacting those who might typically dock their boats on the river to watch the display. 

There will also be extensive street closures and operations at Washington’s Reagan National Airport will be suspended for at least two hours on Thursday. 

A jogger runs past the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Tuesday, as crews prepare for upcoming Fourth of July celebrations. Trump will deliver his address in front of the famed memorial around 6:30 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There’s also question of how the makeup of the crowd might differ this year; some may opt to boycott the D.C. party in protest of the president’s involvement, while others could choose to descend on the capital to demonstrate against Trump.

Protests planned

Medea Benjamin, a political activist and co-founder of the group Code Pink, falls in that first camp. Her group has been granted a permit to protest at event — and she says they have more than just posters in store. 

“We’re having a ‘Trump is a big baby’ festival,” said Benjamin. 

Her group is bringing the “Baby Trump” balloon to the July Fourth bash, a giant inflatable depicting the president in a diaper that first flew above crowds of protesters during his visit to London last summer. But due to airspace restrictions, the group won’t be permitted to hoist the blimp into the sky. It will instead be tethered tightly, close to the ground.

The ‘Baby Trump’ balloon first flew over London during Trump’s 2018 visit to the U.K. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Code Pink will also host a Trump “roast” as a part of their protest, including a Trump impersonator contest, a men’s swimsuit contest and an open-mic session for those who want to express how they’re feeling about the president’s participation in the U.S. holiday. 

“His policies are un-American,” said Benjamin. “We have to be speaking up when we’re supposed to be celebrating what America is really all about.”

Trump supporters are welcome to join the open mic to share their own messages, she said. But if there’s any hostility from those supporters, she says the group is prepared for that, too. 

And it’s not only Trump’s participation in the event that’s raising eyebrows; some are questioning where he’s chosen to deliver his address.

The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels will take part in Thursday’s Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Trump will speaking at the iconic spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial — the same place where Martin Luther King Jr. famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. 

“[Trump] is the antithesis. He is the very opposite of what Martin Luther King stood for,” said Benjamin. 

While Benjamin says Trump has the right to be there and speak, she argues that choosing that specific location points out “the contrast between someone who had moral character and had an incredibly positive vision for the nation — that had a dream of unifying people — versus Trump, who is such a negative character and is so divisive.”

Presidents taking part a rarity

According to the National Park Service, the last time a sitting president addressed the country on Independence Day was in 1970, when President Richard Nixon taped a July Fourth message that was played on the National Mall amid growing anger over the Vietnam War. Before that, it was President Harry Truman, who spoke on the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1951. 

“There is no more appropriate place to celebrate the anniversary of American independence than among the nation’s monuments on the National Mall and the memorials to the servicemen and women who have defended the United States for the past 243 years,” Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a statement last month, partially announcing the plans. 

“For the first time in many years, the World War II Memorial and areas around the Reflecting Pool will be open for the public to enjoy a stunning fireworks display and an address by our Commander-in-Chief. We are excited to open these new areas so that more visitors may experience this year’s Independence Day celebration in our nation’s capital.”

U.S. presidents have historically stayed away from the annual Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C., opting to mark Independence Day in another way. Here, Barack Obama greets those attending a barbecue for members of the military and their families on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2011. Trump has also hosted such a barbecue for the past two Fourth of Julys. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Though the price tag has yet to be disclosed, others have voiced concern about how much it will cost to finance a president-involved event.

“Forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for what amounts to a political rally is irresponsible and a misuse of funds. I strongly urge the president to reconsider his proposed event,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement, echoing the concerns he previously raised in a letter penned in early June alongside two other Democrats.

At a news conference discussing the July Fourth plans, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the city will circle back to the federal government should the costs exceed what is allocated. 

“We … always support these large-scale events for the Fourth of July,” said Bowser. “Should we have extraordinary costs related to First Amendment activities, that will be something we evaluate at the conclusion of the event for reimbursement from the federal government.”

Fireworks explode over the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall during Fourth of July celebrations in 2018. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

One bill that taxpayers won’t be stuck with? The fireworks.

Two companies, Phantom Fireworks and Fireworks by Grucci, are donating $750,000 worth of fireworks, for an extended pyrotechnics program that is expected to run at least 35 minutes.

“It will be quite a display,” said National Park Service superintendent Jeff Reinbold. “It will end with a booming 1,000-foot-high show. It should be incredibly dramatic.”

Last year, Trump and his wife, Melania, hosted service members and their families at a picnic on the White House lawn, with the president addressing guests from the balcony.

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