In happier days, the suggestion that a president might put in an appearance at a Fourth of July celebration wouldn’t occasion much opposition. But it’s not surprising that a controversy is raging over news that Donald Trump will speak at Independence Day festivities in Washington.
In recent decades, Washingtonians and tourists have celebrated the holiday by pouring on to the National Mall to watch fireworks and enjoy musical performances staged as part of an event known as “Capitol Fourth.” Presidents usually have observed the holiday at the White House or outside Washington. But in February, Trump signaled that this year would be different.
“HOLD THE DATE!” Trump announced on Twitter. “We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called ‘A Salute to America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite president, me!” A U.S. Park Police spokesman confirmed to the Washington Post this week that Trump indeed would speak at the Lincoln Memorial. Trump’s event will be separate from “Capitol Fourth” but close by.
On Thursday, leading Democrats in the House sent Trump a letter expressing concern that he was planning a “conflicting event” that “could create the appearance of a televised, partisan campaign rally on the Mall at public expense” and incur “substantial unplanned costs.” They urged Trump to consider making his remarks “at an earlier time or alternative location.”
There is an element of partisan trolling in the letter. But you don’t have to be a Democratic official to worry that the notoriously narcissistic Trump will try to make a patriotic celebration all about “your favorite president, me.”
What’s more, it seems almost inevitable that he will inject his divisive brand of partisan, personal politics into a speech that ought to be about uniting Americans on the anniversary of their independence. During remarks to U.S. troops in Iraq last year, the president veered off the subject of the war against Islamic State to plug his proposal for a wall on the border with Mexico and to criticize Democrats in Congress.
Trump is the president, and the fact that he is unpopular with many Americans doesn’t mean he should absent himself from ceremonial occasions at which his presence is required. Sometimes he rises to such occasions. There were no partisan potshots in his prepared D-day speech at Normandy.
Still, it’s all too easy to imagine Trump taking advantage of a Fourth of July celebration to deliver a polarizing and self-serving message — at a moment when a divided America needs to celebrate instead what its people have in common. If Trump wants the Fourth of July to be a true “Salute to America,” he needs to watch his tongue.