In 2019, former President Donald Trump made news because he wanted to have tanks rolling through Washington, D.C., like what happens in North Korea, or what was recently on display for Russia's Victory Day celebration. It's something Trump wanted since witnessing the grand display of arms at the 2017 Bastille Day event in Paris.
Each time it drew swift condemnation and Trump was told why it was a bad idea. It was criticized as partisan and an attempt to politicize the day by celebrating himself and his MAGA supporters. In 2019, he got as close as was possible with his "Salute to America" event at the Lincoln Memorial. It poured with rain that day, drawing mockery.
But according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the 2019 event wasn't the end of Trump's ongoing desire to display his strength using the U.S. military. In the middle of the COVID crisis, Trump came up with another July 4 event. In his tell-all book, Esper describes an event being planned in June 2020 that wasn't even flagged for the Department of Defense. It was Esper who reached out to U.S. Northern Command.
He was informed that the White House Military Office (WHMO), which serves as the liaison between the DOD and the White House, was called into the Oval Office and told Trump wanted a large-scale event that would rival the rain-soaked mess of 2019.
"Trump apparently said he wanted a much bigger military presence, something closer to France’s Bastille Day celebrations," wrote Esper. "This would mean more aircraft, more ground vehicles, and more displays, all on a much grander scale. What happened next was never clear, but with the president’s approval, WHMO dutifully started things moving, coordinating directly with NORTHCOM. Nobody seemed to think of informing the Pentagon’s leadership about what was going on."
By the time the Pentagon did get briefed, the plan he saw was "outlandish" and "tone-deaf" after Park Police cleared downtown Washington ahead of his Bible photo-op at St. John's Church.
“The original plan under development by Northern Command, at the White House’s direction, called for 107 aircraft—yes, 107 planes—mostly U.S. military aircraft supplemented by privately owned vintage planes, to fly over the White House on the afternoon of July 4," Esper wrote. "The low-end number was 76 military aircraft. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to calculate the cost, the time it would take to fly so many sorties, and the airspace coordination and clearance. It was absurd.”
Typically the July 4 celebrations in Washington happen on the National Mall, the space between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. The reason Trump's team had to order them to fly over the White House, was due to the local D.C. government canceling public events due to COVID. The mayor didn't have any jurisdiction over the White House, just everything around it. So, they decided if the event centered on the White House they were fine.
"But still," Esper asked, "why 'over' the White House? You could still get a good view, if not better, of the aircraft if they flew east to west, straight from Capitol Hill, over the Washington Monument, to the Lincoln Memorial. After all, if people weren’t traveling to D.C. for the observances, most Americans will see it on TV."
“Well, sir,” the answer back explained, “the president plans to invite his supporters to a big event on the South Lawn” for dinner, a speech, and what was described as "first-class seats" to watch the aircraft flyover. The White House even had a list of the equipment they wanted on display: a Stryker combat vehicle, a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, a vehicle-mounted Marine Corps air defense weapon, and mini-planes.
In June, Trump had been humiliated when it was reported the Secret Service rushed him and his family to the bunker due to Black Lives Matter protesters in downtown Washington. Trump was described as "rattled" at the time. The White House was ridiculed for turning off all of the lights like they were out of candy bars at Halloween. Trump was so furious that the news leaked he said the person should be charged with treason and executed. Esper explained Trump was obsessed with something making him look "weak or a "laughingstock."
"At a minimum they would be political props to convey the candidate’s strength, toughness, and seriousness," Esper wrote. "It was not a good optic for the nation, and it was not a good look for the military. It made no sense to any of us at the Pentagon, but at the White House, we would learn, it made all the sense in the world."
Trump ultimately ended up using South Dakota's Mount Rushmore as his spot for an event on July 3, despite questions about the safety of shooting off fireworks "over flammable material and ponderosa pine vegetation," a former National Park Service fire management officer said.
Esper's book, A Sacred Oath, is on sale Tuesday and Raw Story has full coverage here.
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