By Bryan Pietsch and Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With U.S. military armored vehicles parked nearby, workers set up a red-carpeted stage on Wednesday for President Donald Trump’s planned July Fourth speech, as critics accused him of hijacking a nonpartisan celebration of America’s Independence Day.
Trump is billing his production on Washington’s monument-lined National Mall as a tribute to the American armed forces, featuring fighter jet flyovers, military music, an extended fireworks display and a presidential speech.
“Our July 4th Salute to America at the Lincoln Memorial is looking to be really big. It will be the show of a lifetime!” he wrote on Twitter.
But America’s divisive politics threatened to overshadow what has traditionally been a nonpartisan national holiday. Republican political groups confirmed that they had been given prime tickets for Trump’s speech, while protest groups planned floats and events to mock the president.
Democratic lawmakers have accused the former reality-TV show host of wasting taxpayer money to stage a campaign rally ahead of his 2020 re-election bid, while some commentators have raised concerns about politicizing the military.
The White House says the president will focus his remarks on patriotism, not politics.
Trump’s speech will be a departure from tradition. For decades, presidents have kept a low profile during the parade, concert and fireworks that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s founders declaring independence from Britain in 1776.
On Wednesday, National Park Service employees closed the Lincoln Memorial to tourists as they set up metal barricades and laid out plywood before the heavy military vehicles were driven into place. Video screens and a red-carpeted stage were already set up. Scattered thunderstorms were forecast for Thursday afternoon and evening.
“I think it’s good that he’s going to speak and get people excited about the Fourth again,” said Jacob Mishalanie, 20, visiting from Decatur, Alabama.
Alex Matuszak, 21, who was visiting from suburban Chicago, called the event a “political scam.”
“He’s taking money out of national parks just for him to get more views and more ratings,” Matuszak said.
Two M2 Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicles, shipped by rail from Fort Stewart, Georgia, were parked across the street, guarded by military personnel in camouflage uniforms. M1 Abrams tanks also were due to be displayed, though they were not yet in place.
The Defense Department also arranged for flyovers by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels squadron, a B-2 stealth bomber, F-35 and F-22 fighter jets, a V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and the Marine One helicopters and Air Force One jet used to transport the president. The Pentagon said top military leaders will attend.
CONTROVERSY OVER COST
The Washington Post reported that the U.S. National Park Service has diverted $2.5 million in park entrance fees to help pay for the event, which typically costs about $2 million.
That money is supposed to be used to maintain national parks such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, said Phil Francis, head of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
“When people pay these fees, they are told the money will be used to support the parks not to support what appears to be a political event,” he told Reuters.
The cash-strapped Park Service is already short 200 law enforcement rangers and has left many other positions unfilled, Francis said.
Democratic Representative Betty McCollum, who oversees the Park Service’s budget as head of a House of Representatives subcommittee, accused Trump of “hijacking the celebration and twisting it into a taxpayer-funded, partisan political rally,” and vowed to investigate whether taxpayer money was being misused.
The Trump administration so far has refused to say how much the event will cost in total. The Pentagon said last year that a military parade requested by Trump would have cost $90 million. Trump ultimately dropped those plans.
(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Idrees Ali; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Will Dunham and Bill Berkrot)