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Inside the effort to build suspense — and crowds — for Trump’s Fourth of July

Army personnel stand near a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

As President Trump’s appointees have worked doggedly to assemble the most ambitious and costly Fourth of July ceremony the nation’s capital has ever seen, they have been guided by one overriding principle: It cannot be a repeat of his 2017 inauguration.

The transformation of the Lincoln Memorial’s grounds into a made-for-TV setting, complete with a VIP seating section for donors and other political supporters, represents the culmination of a four-month-long effort to produce the military celebration the president has envisioned for nearly two years.

For a public gathering that is ostensibly targeting an audience of hundreds of millions of Americans, the display of weaponry, aircraft and pyrotechnics has been scripted primarily to satisfy an audience of one. By having Trump speak to a select audience, flanked by armored tactical vehicles, organizers hope he will avoid the prospect of facing a smaller crowd of the sort that gathered on the Mall for his swearing-in.

Listen on Post Reports: Juliet Eilperin details President Trump’s plans for a grandiose Independence Day event.

But the White House has also been scrambling in recent days to line up enough attendees, as Trump’s aides fret that either thunderstorms or the traditional free concert on the other end of the Mall could diminish the crowd for Trump’s 6:30 p.m. speech. The issue of crowd size has been a sore point with Trump since his inauguration, when far fewer people showed up compared with Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural ceremony and the president pressed National Park Service officials for nonexistent photographic evidence of a larger audience.

The administration has provided 5,000 tickets to the military, the Pentagon announced Wednesday. Trump’s reelection campaign has handed passes out to allies, donors and trade associations — from the American Bankers Association to the British Embassy, according to people familiar with the matter, while several fundraisers and operatives also were tasked to hand out tickets.

The White House has been a bit clumsy in some of its attempts to give away the passes, however, and officials said there were plenty of tickets still available this week. Members of one nonprofit advocacy organization — which does not accept any gifts from the government — received an email from the Office of Public Liaison this week, offering up to five tickets to attend Trump’s speech.

Mapping the Fourth of July on the Mall

The event will easily be the most expensive Independence Day fete on the Mall in history. The Park Service has committed to spending nearly $2.5 million for Trump’s involvement alone, and the air show and transport of tanks and other heavy machinery will also run into the millions. The president, however, described it Wednesday as a bargain.

President Trump has asked the Pentagon to marshal a broadening array of military hardware, including tanks and fighter jets, for his Fourth of July address. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” the president tweeted. “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!”

While work on the project has accelerated in recent weeks, it can be traced directly back to the president’s July 2017 visit to Paris, where he attended a Bastille Day parade along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. Current and former aides recalled that they were texting during the parade as they watched Trump’s reaction to the jet booms, gun trucks and marching troops, aware that he would want to replicate it back home.

Riding in the president’s specially armored limousine on the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Trump again brought up a celebration of military might — and began sketching out a parade with tanks, flyovers and more before Air Force One even took off. Aides who warned him that tanks would tear up the streets said he dismissed such concerns — and said there would be ways around them.

“There were many long conversations with the boss about this,” said one former senior administration official.

Trump’s initial idea, to hold a military parade coinciding with Veterans Day last year, was scuttled after its projected cost of up to $92 million became public.

One former White House official said that then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who was sensitive to pushback he received from the Pentagon, helped put the brakes on the military parade that Trump has wanted for “forever.” But under current acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, this person added, Trump has more leeway to indulge his whims and impulses.

During Polish President Andrzej Duda’s visit to the White House last month, Trump arranged for an F-35 fighter jet to fly over the complex — and the president loved the display, one White House official said.

Discussions around the current event began at least as early as Feb. 21, when Trump brought it up in a lunch with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, according to an individual familiar with the matter. Three days later, Trump urged Americans to prepare for “one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th . . . Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”

Since then, White House, Interior and Pentagon staffers have engaged in extended negotiations over what sort of commemoration the federal government could undertake without additional appropriations from Congress. Officials from both the Park Service and the Defense Department have raised logistical and budgetary concerns at several points, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. Many of those concerns have been brushed aside.

Two U.S. defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Pentagon has been planning for the July 4 celebration since at least February, when specific requests for aircraft such as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber were made by the White House.

Military officials did not see a problem with the requests, considering them to be part of a civic event that the Pentagon would typically support. Briefing slides with aircraft on them were created and distributed in some parts of the Pentagon, one of the defense officials said.

But as July neared, the Pentagon ran into a challenge: The White House did not want defense officials to detail the military’s involvement out of deference to the president’s desire to have surprises for observers during the aerial show. The situation created a dynamic in which it appeared the Pentagon was less organized for the celebration than it really was, one of the defense officials said.

One apparent exception was the president’s desire to include tanks in the celebration. A third defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said many top military officials were not aware that the president definitely wanted tanks involved until last week. Two M1A2 Abrams tanks were shipped up on rail cars from Fort Stewart in Georgia over the weekend along with other armored vehicles, including M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

National Park Service officials remain concerned that the deployment of tanks on the Lincoln Memorial’s grounds could damage its curbs and sidewalks, which are not designed to hold the weight of a vehicle weighing more than 60 tons. The federal government spent $30.7 million to refurbish the memorial under the Obama administration, including its sidewalks, and the Trump inaugural committee still hasn’t reimbursed the agency for damage it inflicted to the memorial during its setup in January 2017.

With the event less than a day away, some details were still being worked out. White House officials have repeatedly urged Trump to stick to the script his staff has prepared for him to deliver Thursday, which includes a unifying message about patriotism and avoids political taunts or attacks, and aides say he has agreed not to give a political speech. But his aides were tentatively planning to play campaign music when he takes the stage, according to one individual familiar with the plan.

And while the Park Service has dipped into a pot of entrance and recreation fees to transfer nearly $2.5 million for the White House portion of the event, it is unclear which parks will end up losing funds as a result. At one point, Interior officials raised the idea of taking money from sites located in liberal communities such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, according to a person familiar with the discussion, but that has yet to take place.

The decision to tap funds normally reserved for projects aimed at enhancing visitors’ experience has sparked howls of protest from Democratic lawmakers and National Park Service advocates, who note the agency has a $11.9 billion deferred maintenance backlog.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on environment appropriations, said Wednesday that she plans to “schedule a hearing to get a full accounting from Interior Secretary Bernhardt on the use of National Park fees to pay for this event.”

“This administration needs to be reminded that the power of the purse belongs to Congress,” she said.

Will Ritter, co-founder of Poolhouse, a Republican ad agency, said that while Thursday’s event is more elaborate than past July 4 observances, some of the criticisms are overblown.

“Panicking partisans that think this is the cinematic beginning of a military state need to grab a sparkler and a Bud,” Ritter said. “It’s much bigger than one person, much more important than showing off metal, nailing the president or ‘owning the libs.’ It should be an unapologetic celebration that we are blessed to live in the greatest nation on earth, during the best time in human history. Have a hot dog!”

The president’s advisers say Trump sees the event as a way to associate himself with the flag and patriotism, which will resonate with many Americans the way his comments criticizing National Football League players for kneeling during the national anthem did.

After wading into the anthem debate, according to two former senior administration officials speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, Trump told his aides, “It’s a winning issue for me.”

“What are they going to say? I’m being too patriotic? I believe in America?” one official recounted Trump saying. “Give me a break.”

Asked about the event Wednesday, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh was unapologetic. “President Trump loves this country,” Murtaugh said. “He’ll never apologize for that.”