White House insists Trump's 'Salute to America' won't be political

The White House is insisting that President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE’s “Salute to America” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday will not politicize Independence Day.

But few of his political opponents are buying it.

Democrats and Washington, D.C.’s city government have emerged as the most vociferous critics of Thursday’s event, which they say will transform what has long been a largely apolitical July Fourth festivity into something more akin to a celebration of the president.

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“President Trump’s attempts to make the annual Independence Day celebration in the National Capital Region about himself are appalling,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who represents the suburbs around D.C., said in a statement on Tuesday.

He and others say Trump’s plan to bring tanks to the National Mall could damage the national park, along with area roads, and that the military-style celebration, which is also set to include a flyover, will cost a ton for taxpayers.

The White House and Trump’s supporters say the criticism of the event is both overblown and predictable, and that it is largely coming from voices that always cast Trump’s actions in the worst possible light.

“The president is not going to get political,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Tuesday afternoon during an interview on Fox Business Network. “He’s going to celebrate the greatest country, the greatest idea in the history of the world, and that is the United States of America.”

A senior administration official separately told The Hill that Trump's remarks “will not be political” and that the president will focus on the nation's independence, the flag and the military in a patriotic tone. 

But Trump has a habit of going off script and has in the past used official White House events to jab at his opponents and exaggerate his own successes.

Democrats believe they’ll be targeted by Trump on Independence Day, this time with the Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop.

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Trump underscored his tendency to go on the attack during remarks in the Oval Office on Monday, where he was asked after a bill signing if he can give a speech that can reach all Americans.

“I think so. I think I’ve reached most Americans,” Trump said before launching into a diatribe against Democrats.

“Most Americans want no crime. Most Americans want a strong military, they want good education, they want good health care,” he continued. “If you look at pre-existing conditions, the Republicans are going to save pre-existing conditions. The Democrats won’t be able to do it. What the Democrats’ plan is is going to destroy the country.”

Trump appeared to get the idea for the celebration during a visit to Paris for Bastille Day in 2017 that included a military parade.

“Like everything else in the Trump presidency this is virtually unprecedented,” said Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian and CEO of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

Democrats and other observers have also criticized the prominence of the military in the event.

“We don’t need military imagery for the world to know the strength of our nation, and lawmakers deserve to know how much this event will cost taxpayers,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrat accuses GOP of opposing DC statehood because of 'race and partisanship' News outlets choose their darlings, ignore others' voices Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi set to unveil drug price plan | Abortion rate in US hits lowest level since Roe v. Wade | Dems threaten to subpoena Juul MORE (D-Md.), who like Beyer represents suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., said in a statement to The Hill.

The “Salute to America” is separate from the annual Independence Day parade and “A Capitol Fourth,” the traditional event hosted on the National Mall that features musical performances from Carole King and others.

The divide could lead to an odd mix of tourists, families, Trump supporters and protesters populating the Mall. Activist group Code Pink plans to tether a Baby Trump balloon near the Washington Monument as part of its demonstration. 

Trump last year wanted a military parade to mark the centennial of the World War I armistice. The concept was eventually doomed by a reported cost of $92 million.

But it appears he may view Thursday in the same light, as tanks will be on display and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and other military aircraft will be featured in a flyover.

“The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!”

It’s unclear how costly the Trump event will be, despite inquiries from Democratic lawmakers.

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumLeave park operations — and fee revenues — to the parks Federal watchdog: Trump admin broke law by pulling from park entrance fees during shutdown Interior official threatens to withhold jobs in lawmakers' districts after opposition to BLM move MORE (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, said overtime pay for the Park Service will lead to increased costs, which could force the agency to divert resources from elsewhere in its budget.

A committee staff member told The Hill that there's additional cause for concern that the event — and the display of tanks in particular — could damage the turf and an underlying irrigation system on the National Mall that was installed in 2017 for $40 million. 

A Department of Interior spokeswoman acknowledged that Trump's presence will directly contribute to heightened costs.

“Any time a president visits a public place like a national park to address the American public there are necessary additional costs associated with public safety and security,” Molly Block said in a statement.

Block said the expense will be shared by the White House, the National Park Service, the U.S. Park Police and various law enforcement groups involved in the event.

But the agency has not responded to requests for specifics from Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback MORE (D-N.M.), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the department.

“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 Tuesday.

Block told The Hill that the agency would respond to the senator “through the proper channels.”

A Pentagon spokesman said the agency is still working on developing a cost estimate for the event.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday it would suspend activity at Ronald Reagan National Airport for 90 minutes to accommodate the military flyovers during Trump's event, and again for 45 minutes during an extended fireworks display.

The Arlington Memorial Bridge will be closed entirely to vehicle and pedestrian traffic this year, and boaters on waterways around the capital will face additional restrictions as well.

The National Mall will be open to the public, but an additional ring of security will be present closer to the Lincoln Memorial where the president will deliver his remarks.

That section will be accessible only to ticketed guests chosen by the White House. A senior administration official said those invited include friends and family of the administration, government officials and members of the military. 

The designation of an area just for White House guests has further stoked complaints that the administration is politicizing the holiday.

It's not uncommon for presidents to use the holiday to deliver an address from a prominent location.

Ronald Reagan spoke aboard the USS John F. Kennedy on Independence Day in 1986 to mark the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.

George W. Bush spoke to troops in Ohio in 2003, and, like other presidents, held a naturalization ceremony in 2008.

Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKrystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans Sanders campaign announces it contacted over 1 million Iowa voters Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE hosted troops at the White House for the holiday multiple times.

“It’s instructive to look at what past presidents have done and how dramatically it differs from what President Trump is planning to do,” said Updegrove, the presidential historian.

"Despite the fact there are plans for Blue Angels, and tanks and fireworks, Donald Trump is very definitely going to be the star of the show,” he continued. “And what remains to be seen is whether he will make this a Washington, D.C., campaign rally.”