President Donald Trump’s decision to host his own Fourth of July event drew criticism for its potential to turn a celebration of independence into something political. The celebration, which Trump described as “the show of a lifetime,” included military demonstrations and tanks — as well as a VIP ticketed section and increased security — to celebrate the U.S. armed forces and America. But it’s also raised questions about costs and access.
The president spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday. Watch in our player above.
Here’s what we know about the event, some of the questions it’s raised, and why some fear the president’s speech could cross a legal line.
Has a president held this kind of event before?
The last time a president delivered a speech on the National Mall on Independence Day was 1951, when Harry Truman marked the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1970, supporters of President Richard Nixon hosted the “Honor America Day” rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The event was disrupted by protestors demonstrating against the Vietnam War.
How did the event come about?
Trump has expressed a desire for a military parade in Washington since 2017, when he witnessed a Bastille Day display in France at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron. In February 2018, Trump ordered a military parade to be held in November of that year.
But he later canceled it, citing the estimated cost of more than $90 million. Trump in February mentioned the Fourth of July celebration, saying “we’re thinking about doing something that would, perhaps, become a tradition.”
What other events are taking place?
There is already a long-standing tradition in Washington, D.C., to host parades and other events on July 4. Those events were held as planned.
The annual National Independence Day Parade made its way down Constitution Avenue beginning at 11:45 a.m. ET. As in past years, it included bands, drum corps, military units and floats.
PBS also broadcast its annual Capitol Fourth concert at 8 p.m. ET, which included fireworks at 9:07 p.m. ET. The fireworks show lasted about 35 minutes, twice as long as previous years because of donations from two fireworks companies.
Protests against Trump’s event took place at various locations along the National Mall.
How much will the event cost, and where will the money come from?
It’s hard to know the total cost at this point.
Late Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the National Park Service would divert nearly $2.5 million for Trump’s “Salute to America.” The entire celebration usually costs around $2 million, a former NPS employee told the Post.
Some of the elements for the “Salute to America” celebration, such as fireworks, were donated. But taxpayers could bear much of the cost of the festivities.
The National Park Service money being used for the parade came from funds that would otherwise be used for maintenance of parks across the U.S. This comes as the agency has a $11 billion backlog in maintenance costs that have been “deferred” due to budget restraints, which were exacerbated by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history earlier this year.
Airspace over Washington was closed from 6:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. to clear the way for military flyovers. Ronald Reagan National airport halted flights during that time, and also during the fireworks display later in the evening, which happens every year.
What are critics saying?
Many Democratic lawmakers have taken to Twitter to express their discontent with the president’s Fourth of July event. Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, tweeted, “It is not a day for a partisan political rally & this admin should not be raiding national park fees to pay for it.” Similar sentiments were shared by some of her Democratic colleagues. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted that Trump is “using the Fourth of July and Park Service funds to reward campaign donors.”
The White House has also been criticized for giving out tickets to Cabinet officials, Trump allies and the Republican National Committee to a viewing area directly in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The White House has said that’s typical of a White House event. Some of the RNC tickets went to top donors. The Democratic National Committee said it did not receive tickets.
The government of the District of Columbia has been vocal about its opposition to the “Salute to America” event. The district will also foot the bill for some of the event, though the total cost is not yet known.
This isn’t the first such fight the D.C. government has had over a Trump event. Mayor Muriel Bowser pushed for the cancellation of Trump’s military parade, due to the high cost it would incur for the city. The Trump administration also still owes D.C. more than $7 million in costs associated with his 2017 inauguration.
Addressing the concerns about cost, the president tweeted: “The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow 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. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!”
ABC News has reported that a company that donated $750,000 in fireworks to the celebration, Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, had met face-to-face with Trump in a White House meeting in May to discuss the impact of tariffs on U.S. businesses. The day that the donation was announced, the president held off on imposing new tariffs on Chinese goods that include fireworks. ABC reported that executives said the donation was not politically motivated and had been “in the works for months.” But, the report also quoted a nonpartisan, independent watchdog group as saying that the donation and outcome “raises ethical concerns.”
What’s the line between a White House event and a Trump campaign rally?
Whether the “Salute to America” event violated any laws depended on what the president said during his speech. The president largely stuck to speaking about the nation’s history and why he believed the U.S. is “great.” Trump’s speech was accompanied by military demonstrations, flyovers reportedly from Air Force One and the Navy Blue Angels, and a display of stationary tanks that even the president expressed concern may overload the local infrastructure.
“If this event becomes, for all intents and purposes, a campaign rally, then Trump’s campaign would be violating campaign finance laws,” said Lisa Rosenberg, the executive director of Open the Government, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, before the speech. Campaign events “absolutely cannot be paid for with taxpayer funds,” she added.
What are the consequences if the event turns political?
Even if Trump’s event crossed a line, it would ultimately fall on the Justice Department to enforce the law, something that Rosenberg said is unlikely. “Historically, it has been exceptionally rare for any DOJ to enforce campaign finance laws, and I have a hard time imagining this Justice Department going after this president for a campaign finance violation,” she said.
Fourth of July schedule (all times EDT)
National Independence Day Parade – along Constitution Avenue
11:45 a.m. – 2 p.m.
The parade will include marching bands, floats and military units.
Trump’s ‘Salute to America’ – Lincoln Memorial
6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
The ‘Salute to America’ event will include President Donald Trump’s speech plus military demonstrations and a flyover.
A Capitol Fourth Concert – West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol
8 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Host John Stamos is joined by renowned performers including Carole King, Vanessa Williams and Colbie Caillat, as well as the National Symphony Orchestra. The Sesame Street muppets are expected to make a special appearance. The event, including the fireworks display, will be broadcast live on PBS.
9:07 p.m. – 9:42 p.m.
The fireworks display, which will be launched behind the Lincoln Memorial, is scheduled to be 35 minutes, twice as long as previous years.