On July 4, the National Mall in Washington, DC, played host to one of the largest shows of military might that the capital has ever seen. Armored tanks, parked in front of the Lincoln Memorial, served as the backdrop for an Independence Day speech by President Donald Trump, which was punctuated by a number of scheduled flyovers by military aircraft. The event was promoted as a tribute to our country’s power and was inspired by the president’s trip to a Bastille Day celebration in France back in 2017.
According to a report in The Washington Post, the bill for the event totaled at least $2.5 million — the overhead planes and tanks costing extra — with the money taken from the coffers of the National Park Service. Specifically, the report said funds derived from the fees visitors pay to access national parks and monuments were used to pay for the celebration.
The entire tally is added to the estimated $6 million in revenue the parks lost during the government shutdown from December 22, 2018, to January 15. The NPS generally keeps about 80 percent of that money, using it for maintenance, restoration, and amenities. To skeptical observers, the event seemed hypocritical, directly countering the notion of fiscal conservatism that Trump and the Republican party trumpet so loudly — given that the event constituted neither a necessary nor especially useful government service.
Throughout his term, President Trump has made no secret of his desire for a military spectacle. He originally hoped to host such an event for Veterans Day in 2018 but pulled the plug after media reports showing a $92 million price tag drew the ire of the public. What has stood in the way of the event coming to fruition has always been the fact that someone would have to pay for it — and that someone would undoubtedly be taxpayers, many of whom would want nothing to do with a potentially partisan event. In fact, The Post report noted that VIP seats at the Fourth of July event were reserved for Trump donors and other high-profile allies.
In itself, a Fourth of July celebration featuring a speech by the sitting president likely wouldn’t have seemed excessive. But this one took place in addition to DC’s annual Fourth of July show. On the other side of the mall, the recurring, free-of-charge Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall took place as scheduled, with the National Symphony Orchestra and singer-songwriter Carole King performing alongside a fireworks show above the Capitol building.
Trump’s celebration added a second, simultaneous event viewed by many Democratic members of Congress, as well as some current and former military officials, as politicizing both the military and Independence Day. “Tanks aren’t props. They are weapons of war,” Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, told the New York Times.
Many advocates for America’s national parks also expressed distress over the stripping of hard-earned funds from the parks that earned them. The Post reported that the money will likely be taken from small-sized parks around the country, including the Washington Mall. Those already concerned with the administration’s proposed budget cuts to the National Park Service, estimated at nearly $500 million in 2020, were quick to express outrage over the Fourth of July affair.
The National Parks Conservation Association and Democracy Forward issued a joint statement demanding that the Office of Inspector General of the Department of the Interior investigate whether or not the siphoning of NPS funds for this ticketed event was even legal.
“Siphoning off desperately needed money from our national parks to pay for a spectacle on our National Mall is both reckless and a breach of the public’s trust,” said Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association, in the release. “Taking money from national park visitor fees could also be illegal, and we urge the Inspector General to investigate this matter. Two and a half million dollars might not seem like a lot to this administration, but to a national park it’s everything. Fee dollars are meant to protect our parks’ irreplaceable resources and enhance visitors’ experiences, not fund a Presidential stunt.”
Though Congress has not approved the administration’s proposed cuts, the National Park Service currently struggles to fund its necessary costs for maintenance, training, and upgrades, of which visitor fees are a primary funding source. The estimated backlog on such efforts totals nearly $12 billion.