The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump cancels military parade he longed to hold as concern over costs grow

President Trump tweeted Aug. 17 that he had to cancel his planned military parade. Trump's tweet blamed "local politicians who run Washington, D.C. (poorly)." (Video: Reuters, Photo: Ricky Carioti/Reuters)

President Trump’s grand ­vision for a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue collapsed Friday, as he backed off plans to stage a costly event this fall that was never enthusiastically embraced by the Pentagon or leaders of the city expected to host the spectacle.

In several tweets, Trump blamed local officials in Washington, alleging without evidence that they had inflated the cost to the city of a display of the country’s armed forces that had been inspired by Trump’s visit last year to a Bastille Day parade in Paris.

“The local politicians who run Washington, D.C. (poorly) know a windfall when they see it,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it.”

Trump said it was possible the parade could be put on next year if the cost “comes WAY DOWN,” and added that with the savings “we can buy some more jet fighters!”

He said he would go to a parade in Paris to mark Armistice Day on Nov. 11 and also attend a “big parade” at Joint Base Andrews in the District’s Maryland suburbs.

His tweets were a confirmation of what the Pentagon had signaled a day before: that the planned Nov. 10 event might be postponed amid questions about its escalating costs, which were estimated to be as high as $92 million.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) responded Feb. 7 to President Trump's request to the Pentagon to plan a military parade in Washington. (Video: WUSA9)

Trump has been pushing for a parade publicly and privately since he visited Paris in July 2017 and was deeply impressed by the Bastille Day celebration he attended as a guest of French President Emmanuel Macron. The grandiosity of the event included uniformed French troops marching down the Champs-Elysees avenue with tanks and armored vehicles while fighter jets flew over the Arc de Triomphe.

Trump’s plan immediately ran into concerns over its potential cost and whether the streets of Washington could withstand the type of heavy military equipment that the president witnessed rolling through Paris. But Trump continued to embrace the idea, and administration officials trudged ahead with the planning in recent months.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly briefed Trump this week on the growing cost of the event and several logistical concerns in an effort to discourage him from holding the parade, according to a senior administration official who, like another, spoke on the condition of anonymity. Kelly also told the president that if the parade occurred in Washington in November he would not be able to attend the event in Paris with other world leaders scheduled to be held at the same time to celebrate the centennial of the end of World War I.

Kelly presented Trump with the option he tweeted out Friday morning: scrap the parade and go to Paris, and to the event at Joint Base Andrews.

The event at Andrews has not been publicly announced, and the base does not typically have large military parades. But it does host an air show each year with large displays of military might. The next air show will be held in May 2019.

Administration officials, including Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, were not supportive of the parade even as they explored the idea for the president, according to the official.

“One person, really, in the White House loved the idea of the parade,” the official said, referring to Trump, adding that the president did not express anger at anyone over the event’s demise.

Trump still wants the parade to happen in 2019, a second senior administration official said, noting that he talked about the splendor of the Paris spectacle for weeks after returning from France last year.

District leaders pushed back Friday at Trump’s attempt to blame them, detailing their efforts to deal with what they characterized as a disorganized effort on behalf of the administration.

About an hour after the president’s tweet, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) delivered a caustic response on Twitter, indicating that local costs of the desired parade would have been $21.6 million. The federal government typically reimburses the District for a large share of the security and logistical costs for such events.

“Yup, I’m Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington DC, the local politician who finally got thru to the reality star in the White House with the realities ($21.6M) of parades/events/demonstrations in Trump America (sad),” Bowser tweeted.

Local politicians in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington — where just 4 percent of registered voters cast a ballot for Trump — have been cool to the idea of a military parade since it was floated.

The mayor said in an interview that she found Trump’s accusation that D.C. officials were trying to exaggerate the city’s security and logistical costs galling, especially since the city had been working to plan the event with little lead time.

“The notion that we would overstate what it takes to properly have a parade or demonstration, especially on this short notice, for some benefit to the city — it was just outrageous,” Bowser said. “It’s pretty clear that the president is upset about the parade, and it appears that he didn’t want to take on his own agencies . . . or the Pentagon, so he decided that we were a good target.”

The White House first confirmed Trump’s interest in a large-scale parade in February. But it was only on Aug. 8 that Bowser received a letter from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen saying that the event would take place “on or about Nov. 10, 2018,” and discussing the need for planning and coordination with city agencies.

Read: Projected budget for Trump’s proposed military parade from DC officials

The federal Office of Management and Budget did not approach D.C. officials until Tuesday to discuss logistical costs, a Bowser administration official said.

The White House had scant details about the event, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations with the president’s team. There was no indication of how long the parade would last — including whether it would span multiple days — or confirmation of the Nov. 10 date, the official said. There was no precise route specified, nor estimates of the number of people or pieces of military equipment that would be involved.

“We had a general idea that it was from the Capitol to the White House, but that’s it,” the official said.

The OMB requested that, despite the lack of detail, the District produce ballpark estimates of how much it would have to spend — and be reimbursed — to provide security and other services.

The city’s estimates, which were finalized Thursday, included $13.5 million for police, $3.6 million for fire and paramedics, $2.3 million for transportation services (including traffic control and work on Pennsylvania Avenue before and after the event) and a number of lesser expenses.

Large military parades have been rare in recent U.S. history, although George H.W. Bush’s administration staged a military parade in the District in 1991 after the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War.

The Pentagon began planning Trump’s military parade in earnest in March, putting U.S. Northern Command in charge, with a smaller headquarters at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington taking a leading role. That headquarters — Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region — established a group to crunch numbers and help plan the event for Veterans Day weekend in November.

Defense officials initially said the parade could cost the Pentagon about $12 million, using an estimate for the Gulf War event.

But it now appears that number did not account for a number of factors, including inflation and the significant security demands placed upon Washington since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The $92 million estimate included enhanced Coast Guard security on the District’s waterways and other costs for agencies such as the National Park Service. The cost could have been pared down, depending on how large Trump wanted to go with the parade.

The planning group at Fort McNair was preparing to brief members of the staffs of Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when CNBC, followed by other news organizations, reported the top-end $92 million estimate on Thursday, said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman.

Mattis, perhaps not yet briefed on the new figures, scoffed Thursday when asked by journalists traveling with him in South America about the potential $92 million price tag.

“Whoever told you that is probably smoking something that is legal in my state but not in most states,” Mattis said, referring to his home state of Washington. “I’m not dignifying that number with any reply. I would discount that. And anybody who said that, I almost guarantee you one thing, they probably said, ‘I need to stay anonymous.’ No kidding, because you look like an idiot. And No. 2, whoever wrote it needs to get better sources. I’ll just leave it at that. But I don’t know who wrote it. I haven’t seen it. But I guarantee you there’s been no cost estimate.

A Pentagon spokesman released a statement late Thursday saying the parade was being postponed but providing no reason.

The parade planning group is still active and will begin preparing for a potential 2019 parade “so we’re not starting from scratch,” said a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the event.

Fenit Nirappil and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.