WASHINGTON - The tanks have arrived, the planes are on the tarmac and, after two years of trying, President Donald Trump is finally set to host a military-themed extravaganza in the nation's capital.
Trump plans to take the stage Thursday evening at the Lincoln Memorial as part of a multimillion-dollar spectacle complete with military flyovers, drill teams, fireworks and a presidential address - something that has typically not been a part of the annual Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall.
"People are coming from far and wide to join us today and tonight for what is turning out to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history of our Country," Trump tweeted Thursday, adding, "Perhaps even Air Force One will do a low & loud sprint over the crowd."
....and advanced aircraft anywhere in the World. Perhaps even Air Force One will do a low & loud sprint over the crowd. That will start at 6:00P.M., but be there early. Then, at 9:00 P.M., a great (to put it mildly) fireworks display. I will speak on behalf of our great Country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 4, 2019
For months, the president has taken special interest in the event, which he has dubbed "Salute to America," receiving regular briefings and requesting specific features.
The president's supporters - including many who have received VIP tickets to the event - say Trump is simply celebrating America. Critics have accused the White House of trying to turn a taxpayer-funded, nonpolitical event into a kind of re-election rally for a divisive commander in chief.
"What I think we probably can expect from the president - particularly if he goes off script - is more implied, if not explicit, reliance on division and certainly an awful lot of reflecting in the glory of the moment," said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. "For him, the divisions and the controversy only enhance the level of fun."
Trump administration officials have refused to say how much taxpayers will have to pay for the expanded celebration on the Mall this year. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the National Park Service is diverting almost $2.5 million in fees - primarily intended to improve U.S. parks - to cover some of the costs associated with the event.
Those fees represent just a fraction of the extra costs the government is incurring for the event, which also includes a sizable mobilization of military hardware and is drawing increased scrutiny from congressional investigators.
Democrats have accused the president of using the Fourth of July celebration for political purposes, and some have publicly decried the display of military might as a reflection of Trump's authoritarian impulses. Aides say Trump first got the idea for a military parade while attending a Bastille Day celebration in Paris in 2017.
Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who is vying to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020, said Wednesday that Trump's planned military display "makes America look smaller."
"We've always been the type of country that respects our military enough to not use them as props," he said in an interview on CNN. "Trying to enlist people in uniform to decorate his political agenda just diminishes the military."
Trump's defenders view it differently. "The president's simply fulfilling what our Founding Fathers intended for this great nation," Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor and evangelical adviser to Trump, said this week on Fox Business Network.
In a city where Trump garnered less than 5 percent of the vote in 2016 - and where crowds protesting the day after his inauguration dwarfed his inaugural turnout - Trump will also face demonstrations against his appearance on the Mall, including a giant inflatable "Baby Trump" set up by the activist group Code Pink.
It is unclear whether Trump's speech, scheduled for around 6:30 p.m., will stick to unifying themes about the country or echo the kind of political remarks more common for the president as he fixates on his re-election bid and the Democrats trying to replace him.
A 35-minute fireworks show is scheduled for just after 9 p.m., according to the Interior Department.
M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles have been transported to be in place on the Mall for the president's speech. The event will also include appearances by the Navy's Blue Angels, an F-35 jet, at least one aircraft from Marine Helicopter Squadron One, one of the planes used in the fleet for Air Force One - the specialized airliner that carries the president - and other aircraft.
The president's previous attempt to stage a Veterans Day military parade in Washington was thwarted last year after projected costs spiked as high as $92 million.
Trump has pushed back against criticism that the Independence Day program is a waste of taxpayer funds.
"The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth," Trump wrote Wednesday on Twitter. "We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!"
In fact, many of the planes and other equipment are based hundreds of miles away from Washington and had to be transported for the July 4 event.
Riley said the president's fascination with the show is a reflective of a presidency more concerned with style than substance.
"This is a president who came to the office primarily because he's a showman, and he loves this stuff," he said. "There's almost a childlike joy at being able to move the tanks and the airplanes around on the board."
This article was written by Toluse "Tolu" Olorunnipa, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.