President Trump has described his Fourth of July extravaganza on the Mall as the “show of a lifetime!” and an unprecedented celebration of American military strength.
The patriotic event, though, is proving to be a problem for the U.S. military’s top brass, who must navigate the intense partisan squabbling the event has generated.
Democrats complain that Trump is using the military to advance his political fortunes at considerable taxpayer expense. Trump, who never served but has sought to build a brand around American strength, says the event is intended to celebrate military sacrifice.
“Both sides are gearing for battle and fighting for the carcass of the U.S. military, which is stuck in the middle,” said Peter Feaver, who helped oversee military policy in the George W. Bush White House.
More than any president in modern history, Trump has ignored norms intended to keep the armed forces out of partisan fights. He has dispatched U.S. troops to the southern border and even suggested that it would be acceptable for them to open fire on unarmed migrants — a violation of the laws of war.
He has tweeted orders at top generals in a brazen end run around the traditional chain of command and regularly refers to America’s fighting forces as “my military.” His speeches to military audiences, such as at service academy graduations, have been filled with partisan broadsides and false statements.
Trump’s July 4 celebration, which he’s calling “Salute to America,” has elevated his norm-defying behavior. The event will include flyovers by U.S. fighter jets, fireworks, tanks brought in from Fort Benning, Ga., and a speech by Trump at the Lincoln Memorial.
White House officials said the event was open to the general public and therefore nonpartisan. “I’m not going to allow you to politicize it,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said in scolding reporters.
Democrats, meanwhile, complained that the martial display was designed primarily to glorify Trump and described it as a taxpayer-funded campaign rally. The White House has doled out VIP tickets to the Republican National Committee and big campaign donors.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
The military brass have reacted to the partisan squabbling by hiding out and hoping it all blows over. Pentagon officials have declined to provide details about the tanks, planes and other military hardware requested by the administration, referring all questions about the event to the White House.
Both the Pentagon and White House have been mum on the cost to taxpayers, though Trump said it would be “very little compared to what it is worth.”
“We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door . . . all we need is the fuel,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Some former officials praised the military for its stealth response. “My advice is, don’t comment,” Feaver said. “The less senior military leaders talk about their role, the better.”
Others urged Trump’s top generals to voice their concerns. Senior officers should not disobey legal orders from their commander in chief, said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Obama administration official.
“But if the military chiefs judge this a poor use of resources or a drain on readiness . . . they should openly say so to the president,” Schulman said. “They should feel no compunction about respectfully saying so in public or to Congress.”
So far, Trump has spoken for his generals, saying that they are “thrilled” to be taking part in his celebration. Schulman said military leaders should not let Trump “imply that they support this circus. . . . They shouldn’t let the president use and abuse their image politically without any hint of a correction.”
Normally, the civilian defense secretary would raise these sorts of concerns with the president, but the Trump administration has not had a Senate-confirmed secretary since Jim Mattis resigned in December. In late June, Trump said he would nominate Army Secretary Mark T. Esper to lead the Pentagon.
“Having a secretary of defense up there would be awesome because he can say, ‘Let’s not put the military chiefs up there like potted plants,’ ” said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who served in Afghanistan and taught political science at the United States Military Academy.
For now, though, the most prominent voices in the Pentagon are all in uniform. And those generals, clad in their four-star finery, are expected to be standing beside Trump at the Lincoln Memorial when fighter jets streak across the sky and the president delivers his speech.
Previous presidents have used troops as a backdrop for speeches on big foreign policy decisions. In 2009, President Barack Obama announced his plans to pull all U.S. troops from Iraq in a speech at Camp Lejeune. In 2003, Bush celebrated the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq in a speech aboard an aircraft carrier.
In both instances, the actual war defied presidential hopes, and U.S. troops continued fighting. But the two presidents’ speeches didn’t include partisan attacks of the sort that are a standard part of just about every Trump speech.
Some former military officials said that if the speech devolves into an attack on the president’s political enemies, the top brass should quietly step off the stage.
“The generals think they are adhering to norms and doing their duty” when they stand by the president, Dempsey said. “What they don’t realize is that they’re paving the groundwork for further abuse. They are making it harder for the next guy to make the right call.”
Even if the president’s speech doesn’t turn into a political broadside, the strains of Trump’s Salute to America could linger.
The emotional stakes were clear even before the first tanks rolled into Washington, when Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry appeared on Fox News to defend Trump.
Petry’s honor for heroism in Afghanistan was draped around his neck. The former Army Ranger rolled up the sleeve of his suit jacket and pulled off his prosthetic to reveal the stump that remained after a Taliban grenade shredded his right arm.
Staring at his missing limb, Petry dismissed Democratic lawmaker’s complaints about the cost of the event as boorish.
“The cost to me was worth it,” he said, “and it should be to everyone else.”
VoteVets, a left-leaning veterans group, said it plans to give out more than 5,000 USS John S. McCain T-shirts on the Mall. Their goal is to troll Trump, who frequently feuded with the late Arizona senator.
“The sailors of the USS McCain are being used as a political weapon,” said Feaver, the former Bush administration official. “That doesn’t help the military.”
Other former military officers worried that Trump’s weapons-heavy Fourth of July salute misses the larger point of the holiday and feeds the militarization of America’s national identity.
“It used to be we stood for ideals,” Dempsey said. “Our national pride wasn’t based on the power of our military or how dominant we are over others.”