WASHINGTON - National Park Service acting director Dan Smith faces plenty of looming priorities this summer, including an $11 billion backlog in maintenance needs as well as natural disasters such as the recent wildfire damage to Big Bend National Park.
But in recent days, another issue has competed for Smith's attention: How to satisfy President Donald Trump's request to station tanks or other armored military vehicles on the Mall for his planned Fourth of July address to the nation.
The ongoing negotiations over whether to use massive military hardware, such as Abrams tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles, as a prop for Trump's "Salute to America" is just one of many unfinished details when it comes to the celebration planned for Thursday, according to several people briefed on the plan, who spoke on the anonymity to speak frankly.
Trump - who has already ordered up a flyover by military aircraft including Air Force One - is also interested in featuring an F-35 stealth fighter and involvement from Marine Helicopter Squadron One, which flies the presidential helicopter, two government officials said. The Navy's Blue Angels were supposed to have a break between a performance in Davenport, Iowa, on June 30 and one in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 6 but will now be flying in the District on the Fourth.
At least 300 service members were slated to participate, primarily from military bands and drill teams, but that number could rise as additional military aircraft and other flourishes are added to the event.
The Defense Department has not released any estimate for how much the celebration could cost. But the use of numerous aircraft could drive it well into the millions of dollars when counting fuel and maintenance.
The F-35 costs about $30,000 per hour to fly, according to Pentagon estimates. Each Blue Angel jet costs at least $10,000 per hour to operate, and the cost of flying an Air Force One jet is more than $140,000 per hour.
The cost of a military parade Trump had planned for last year was about $92 million, including $50 million in Defense Department costs, defense officials said at the time. The parade was scuttled after the potential costs became public.
Other details of the July 4 celebration remain up in the air with just days to go. White House officials intend to give out tickets for attendees to sit in a VIP section and watch Trump's speech but did not develop a distribution system before much of the staff left for Asia last week, according to two administration officials. Officials also are still working on other key crowd management details, such as how to get attendees through magnetometers in an orderly fashion.
Traditionally, major gatherings on the Mall, including inauguration festivities and a jubilee commemorating the start of a new millennium, have featured a designated event producer. But in this case, the producer is the president himself.
Trump has demonstrated an unusual level of interest in this year's Independence Day observance, according to three senior administration officials. He has received regular briefings about it from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, according to the people briefed on the plan, and has weighed in on how the pyrotechnics should be launched, how the military should be honored and more.
As a result, the administration has organized a far more ambitious celebration than was originally planned, at a yet-to-be specified additional cost to taxpayers. Two major fireworks firms have donated a pyrotechnic show valued at $750,000, for example, but the Park Service will have to pay employees overtime to clean up the remnants of that display. The fireworks also have been moved to a new location in West Potomac Park at Trump's urging.
The White House declined to comment on the ongoing plans.
Asked about the discussions about using armored vehicles and the projected overall costs of the event, Interior officials also declined to publicly comment. They noted that the department had issued an updated itinerary announcing the timing of the president's speech, as well as additional details on the military performance and 35-minute fireworks display.
"This is going to be a fantastic Fourth of July with increased access across the National Mall for the public to enjoy music, flyovers, a spectacular fireworks display, and an address by our Commander-in-Chief," Bernhardt said in the news release.
Trump has been fixated since early in his term with putting on a military-heavy parade or other celebration modeled on France's Bastille Day celebration, which he attended in Paris in 2017. Trump angrily backed off plans for the grand Veterans Day parade he was planning for Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018 amid concerns from Washington, D.C., officials over the costs, including potential road damage from military vehicles.
The type of armored tactical vehicles under consideration for this year's Fourth of July celebration can weigh 60 tons or more, and some, such as Abrams tanks, have tracks that can be particularly damaging.
The Pentagon is aware of Trump's interest in having armored vehicles involved and is weighing having static displays of them during the celebration, defense officials said.
Advocates for the Park Service as well as some Democratic lawmakers and D.C. officials have questioned why the federal government is devoting resources to the event given constrained budgets and other demands.
"It's irresponsible to ask the National Park Service to absorb the costs of an additional and political event when there are so many unmet needs in the parks," Coalition to Protect America's National Parks Chair Phil Francis, whose group represents current, former and retired Park Service employees and volunteers, said in an email. "The men and women of the National Park Service have been asked to do more with less for too long. Funds should be directed to the agency's highest needs such as operation of the parks and the maintenance backlog and should not be directed to support political objectives."
The D.C. Council reiterated its opposition to driving tanks on the city's streets, tweeting, "We have said it before, and we'll say it again: Tanks, but no tanks." In the tweet, the council posted the image of a March 8, 2018, memo in which the Pentagon cautioned against using tanks in the military parade Trump had envisioned, saying, "consideration must be given to minimize damage to local infrastructure."
Trump's decision to transform the nation's long-standing Fourth of July celebration provided an opportunity for firms such as Fireworks By Grucci, the family-run Long Island company that has produced shows to celebrate Independence Day in major cities around the world as well as ones at different Trump properties. As soon as the president tweeted about the idea in February, the firm's president, Felix "Phil" Grucci Jr., recalled in a phone interview, he began sketching out a possible show.
"I made some design renders for what we would do," Grucci said, adding that he had expected there would be a designated point person for the show, as there has been for other federal observances.
"We were originally thinking there would be an announcement of what the project would be for the event," he added.
Instead, Grucci - who has teamed up with Phantom Fireworks CEO Bruce Zoldan, a major supplier of consumer fireworks in the United States - reached out directly to the White House, along with other federal officials. Grucci said he did not recall the names of his firm's White House contacts but said he did not speak directly to the president.
The Park Service already had a multiyear contract with Garden State Fireworks to launch fireworks on the Mall for the Fourth of July. While the cost varies per year, it was $271,374 in 2018.
Administration officials discussed whether they could cancel the existing contract to accept the new donation and save taxpayers money, according to two government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. But they concluded they could not break off the agreement with Garden State, these officials said, and instead opted to provide a show that will be roughly twice as long as last year's.
"There was always a question of how the performance we were designing and envisioning . . . would integrate with the existing Park Service show," Grucci said. "We weren't thinking we were going to replace that performance at any means."
The upcoming pyrotechnics show will include several new elements, including a massive American flag and "U.S.A." spelled out in the sky.
The only comparable event on the Mall in recent decades was "America's Millennium: A Celebration for the Nation," an effort commissioned by President Bill Clinton and then-first lady Hillary Clinton to mark the start of the 21st century. The festivities, organized by their friend and fundraiser Terry McAuliffe and White House social secretary Capricia Marshall, took place Dec. 31, 1999, and Jan. 1, 2000, and included a concert on the Mall, an appearance by the Clintons, a fireworks show and presentations at multiple museums.
McAuliffe said in an interview that the effort raised roughly $4 million in private donations and was closely coordinated with the Park Service and other federal agencies. But he emphasized that it was different from "Salute to America," because the Clintons played only a modest role in it.
"The Clintons did not take over a decades-, century-old celebration of the nation and insert themselves in the middle of it," he said, adding that the president did not weigh in on any of the decisions and that Hillary Clinton initiated the event only because other countries were preparing similar celebrations.
"Once she knew it was up and running, she was not involved in it at all," said McAuliffe, who went on to serve as Virginia's governor. "They showed up for the day and were very happy."
In a phone interview last week, Zoldan said that he hoped "Salute to America" would bring people together rather than prove divisive.
"We wanted to do it as a gift to America," Zoldan said. "We wanted to give back for this special great time to do bring people together again, by celebrating America's birthday."
Anti-Trump protesters, including the group Code Pink, are negotiating with Park Service officials over whether a massive "Trump Baby" balloon they want to fly will comply with flight restrictions that will be in place over the Mall during the Fourth.
But at least one protest is going forward: a group of senior citizens will hold a singalong at the same time as Trump’s speech, in a gathering they’ve dubbed “Make Americans Friends Again.”