WASHINGTON — In a sweltering capital threatened by storms, the traditional Fourth of July parade Thursday served as a warm-up act to a distinctly nontraditional evening event at the Lincoln Memorial, where President Donald Trump made plans to command the stage against the backdrop of a show of military muscle.
Protesters unimpressed by his "Salute to America" program inflated a roly-poly balloon depicting Trump as an angry, diaper-clad baby.
With his decision to add his own production to the usual festivities, Trump set himself up to be the first president in nearly seven decades to address a crowd at the National Mall on Independence Day. "I will speak on behalf of our great Country!" he said in a morning tweet. "Perhaps even Air Force One will do a low & loud sprint over the crowd."
He's calling his event a "Salute to America," honoring the armed forces, and he said in a tweet early Thursday that he "will speak on behalf of our great Country!"
But thunderstorms threatened, with periods of "torrential rain" forecast by the National Weather Service and a flash-flood watch in effect.
Not since 1951, when President Harry Truman spoke before a large gathering on the Washington Monument grounds to mark the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has a commander in chief made an Independence Day speech to a sizable crowd on the Mall. Protests erupted in 1970 when President Richard Nixon taped a message that was played to crowds on the Mall at an "Honor America Day" celebration organized by supporters.
In the shadow of the Washington Monument, the anti-war organization Codepink erected a 20-foot tall "Trump baby" balloon to protest what it called the president's co-opting of Independence Day.
"We think that he is making this about himself and it's really a campaign rally," said Medea Benjamin, the organization's co-director. "We think that he's a big baby. ... He's erratic, he's prone to tantrums, he doesn't understand the consequences of his actions. And so this is a great symbol of how we feel about our president."
The balloon remained tied down at the Mall because park officials restricted the group's permission to move the balloon or fill it with helium, Benjamin said.
A small crowd gathered to take pictures with the balloon, which drew Trump supporters and detractors.
Kevin Malton, a Trump supporter from Middlesboro, Kentucky, came with his son for the holiday and took pictures with the balloon. He was glad to see the mix of political beliefs at the event, he said. "Even though everybody has different opinions," he said, "everybody's getting along."
In a message marking the 243rd anniversary of the Founding Fathers' adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Trump called the document a milestone that "cast off the shackles of tyranny."
The White House said Trump would speak at the Lincoln Memorial in front of a ticket-only, VIP crowd of Republican donors, administration and campaign officials, family members and those who had come to see him or protest what they saw as a divisive intrusion on a traditionally unifying national holiday.
Trump had sounded a defensive note Wednesday, tweeting that the cost "will be very little compared to what it is worth."
"We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel," he said, referring to Maryland's Joint Base Andrews, home for some of the planes expected for the holiday flyover. "We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats."
Trump glossed over the expense of shipping tanks and fighting vehicles to Washington by rail and guarding them for several days, and other costs.
One of the Democrats running for president said "this business of diverting money and military assets to use them as a kind of prop, to prop up a presidential ego, is not reflecting well on our country." Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a Navy Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2014.
Some of the Republican president's supporters welcomed his stamp on the holiday.
Rachel McKenna of McKinney, Texas, said her relatives have served in the military and she thought it was important to say "'We love you guys, we appreciate everything you do,' and I love the fact I can see that," as she pointed to the Bradley fighting vehicle positioned near the Lincoln Memorial.
"I've never ever seen one," she said. "I just think it's so cool."
Under White House direction, the Pentagon was arranging for an Air Force B-2 stealth bomber and other warplanes to conduct flyovers. There will be Navy F-35 and F-18 fighter jets, the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team, Army and Coast Guard helicopters and Marine V-22 Ospreys. A small number of Army Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles were stationed in the zone.
Two groups, the National Parks Conservation Foundation and Democracy Forward, want the Interior Department's internal watchdog to investigate what they say may be a "potentially unlawful decision to divert" national parks money to Trump's "spectacle."
Trump and the event's organizers could be on the hook to reimburse the government millions of dollars if he goes into campaign mode, in violation of federal appropriations law and the Hatch Act, which bars politicking on government time, said Walter Shaub, who left the Office of Government Ethics in 2017 after clashing with the White House over ethics and disclosure issues.
Trump originally wanted a parade with military tanks and other machinery rolling through downtown Washington ever since he was enthralled by a two-hour procession of French military tanks and fighter jets in Paris on Bastille Day in July 2017 .
Later that year Trump said he'd have a similar parade in Washington on the Fourth of July, 2018, and would "top" the Paris show. The event ended up being pushed to Veterans Day, which conflicted with one of Trump's trips abroad, before it was scuttled after cost estimates exceeding $90 million were made public.
Washington has held an Independence Day celebration for decades, featuring a parade along Constitution Avenue, a concert on the Capitol lawn with music by the National Symphony Orchestra and fireworks beginning at dusk near the Washington Monument.
Trump altered the lineup by adding his speech, moving the fireworks closer to the Lincoln Memorial and summoning the tanks and warplanes.
Associated Press writers Kali Robinson, Matthew Daly, Ellen Knickmeyer and Christopher Rugaber contributed to this report.