Congress

DC to Trump: ‘Tanks but no tanks’

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton says president is trying to turn July Fourth into ‘Bastille Day’

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, said modeling the Fourth of July celebration after France's Bastille Day is "not an American way" to approach the holiday. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton forcefully pushed back on plans by President Donald Trump to include U.S. Army tanks in the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall, saying that “can’t happen.”

Norton, along with D.C. officials, has expressed concern that the 60-ton armored vehicles could grind up the National Mall and restyle a patriotic “hometown celebration,” which attracts thousands of tourists each year and is broadcast live on national television, into a nationalistic presidential rally.

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“Now he’s really gone too far,” the Washington, D.C., delegate said in an interview with WUSA on Monday night. 

Trump is marshaling the resources of the Department of Defense and the National Park Service to make a speech outside the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday — the first time a president has spoken at the event since 1951 — flanked by tanks on the National Mall with flyovers by the Navy's Blue Angels and a F-35 stealth fighter. He has dubbed the event “A Salute to America.”

The Pentagon has not released the estimated cost for the military display, but approximations reported by The Washington Post suggest the price tag of the flyover by military aircraft could climb into the millions. 

Trump confirmed the plan in remarks to reporters in the Oval Office on Monday.

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“We’re gonna have a great Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. It’ll be like no other,” he said. “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.”

“And we’re gonna have some tanks stationed outside,” he added. 

“You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks,” the president acknowledged, “so we have to put them in certain areas.” Trump did not specify a location. 

The “Salute to America” represents a departure from concerts and fireworks displays on the Mall in prior years, which typically take place at the foot of the U.S. Capitol. Except for rare occasions — President Harry Truman honoring the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1951, President Bill Clinton commemorating the turn of the millennium in 2000 — presidents traditionally sit out the fanfare, Norton said.

Trump has harbored hopes of a military parade in D.C. since witnessing a Bastille Day celebration in France in 2017, according to media reports. 

A plan to roll tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue on Veterans Day last year was nixed after the Pentagon released the plan’s estimated cost: more than $90 million. 

The Council of the District of Columbia opposes the exhibition, tweeting Monday, “Tanks but no tanks,” and linking to a 2018 memo from the Pentagon that discouraged the use of tanks in the scuttled Veterans Day parade because “consideration must be given to minimize damage to local infrastructure.”

Independence Day is “the most nonpartisan, nonpolitical celebration that we have in this town. And what this president is trying to do is to make it into Bastille Day,” Norton said. “That’s not an American way to approach our Fourth of July.”

The potential for lasting damage to the National Mall also poses a problem for the National Park Service, which has devoted millions of dollars to refurbish it, Norton said.

According to figures from the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, the Mall and memorials on and around it still face a $655 million budget shortfall for overdue repairs, part of a $1.3 billion shortfall for national parks in D.C.

“We urge that the decisions the administration makes in regard to any heavy artillery are responsible ones, because many areas of the Mall are not designed for tanks and face the potential for significant damage,” said John Garder, the organization’s senior director of budget and appropriations.

The Park Service overall faces a $11.9 budget shortfall for overdue repairs.

“We spent millions of dollars to fix up that Mall. Bad to worse, can’t happen,” Norton said.

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New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, the leading Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Interior Department, criticized the Trump administration’s plans as “lavish” and an invitation for corruption, citing reports that the National Mall will include a ticket-only VIP section.

“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,” Udall said.

The Interior Department failed to respond to a June 18 letter from a few Democrats on the subcommittee about how it would fund the president’s celebration.

Repurposing a venue synonymous with Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and the movement for civil rights into a military-laden political event could attract protesters, critics say. 

“People are going to make this into a protest event. … We don’t need that on the Fourth of July,” Norton said.

On Tuesday, the Park Service announced that it was granting a permit to Code Pink to fly a Baby Trump balloon on Thursday near the Lincoln Memorial. The anti-war feminist group’s application said it was protesting “to show opposition of politicization of July 4th (Independence Day) by president.”

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