The White House and Republican National Committee have spent the last week scrambling to distribute VIP tickets to President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Now, White House officials and allies are wringing their hands over the risk of the hastily arranged event morphing into Trump’s Inauguration 2.0, in which the size of the crowd and the ensuing media coverage do not meet the president’s own outsized expectations for the event.
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“They started this too late and everyone has plans already,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and chief executive officer of the drilling services company Canary, LLC. “Everyone will be there in spirit, but in reality, people planned their July 4th activities weeks ago.”
Less than 36 hours before the event, White House aides were crafting Trump’s speech while administration and Republican National Committee officials finalized the guest lists.
A White House official declined to explain the system for handing out tickets or the various tiers of VIP access, except to say the reserved seating area – extending from the steps of the memorial to the middle the reflecting pool — will feature veterans, Trump family and friends and special guests. The First Lady, vice president and second lady, and a number of Cabinet officials are expected to attend as well as several senior White House officials — though the aide stressed this, too, was still coming together.
“They are creating this thing from scratch, and I do not know if anyone knows how it will go off,” said another White House aide. “There are questions about the ticket distribution and who will show up. The weather might be bad. Heads are spinning.”
An informal survey of more than a half dozen Trump donors and allies showed that none plan to attend. Several Republicans close to the White House returned POLITICO’s calls from beaches at least one plane ride away from Washington.
While the Republican National Committee is trying to use Trump’s speech to woo high-end donors, few, if any, seemed to want the tickets because they’d already escaped D.C.
One Republican close to the White House said he has not heard any chatter among the donor class about attending the speech, even if it meant securing top-notch seats before one of Washington’s most majestic memorials. A Republican political operative called the week of July 4 normally a “dead zone for donors.”
“It’s not a very tough ticket to get,” said another Republican close to the White House. “They’re not going to give it away to anyone off the street, but if you have any juice at all, you can probably get the tickets.”
The White House allowed staffers to enter a lottery to receive up to 10 tickets per person — a sign of the administration’s rush to fill up that space on the mall, said a third White House aide.
Staffers typically can enter lotteries for anywhere from two to four tickets to events such as the Easter Egg Roll, but it is unusual for staffers to get offers for tickets in blocks of 10, the aide added.
The Trump event has caused tension throughout Washington during what is a typically a quiet vacation week. Congress is on recess, and many D.C. residents typically use this stretch of time to escape D.C.’s humidity.
Instead military and Pentagon officials spent the last few days privately decrying the use of tankers and military airplanes as part of the president’s speech, fearing it casts the traditionally nonpartisan U.S. military in a political light.
The president’s critics seized on his “Salute to America” program as Trump trying to use federal taxpayer dollars to fund what ultimately may come across as a political rally, hijacking the usual night of fireworks and classical music on the mall.
A White House official stressed Trump’s speech is not a political event – even though the Republican National Committee, which is closely coordinating with the Trump re-election campaign on the 2020 race, was given a block of tickets to distribute.
A spokesperson for the RNC called it “standard practice for the RNC to receive a small number of tickets to events just as the DNC did under Democrat Presidents. This is routine for events like the White House Christmas Open Houses, Garden Tours in spring and fall, etc.”
“The public is welcome to come and celebrate our great country, the greatest democracy, the Constitution, all the amendments,” top White House aide Kellyanne Conway told reporters Tuesday. “I’m not going to allow you to politicize it.”
The president has been wanting to put on a 4th of July event since July 2017 when he visited France for a Bastille Day parade and was struck by the display of the French procession that included over 60 airplanes, more than 20 helicopters, horses and soldiers.
Since then, administration officials have tried to water down the president’s desires for a military-focused parade, but they could only do so much – leaving the White House scrambling to put on Thursday’s “Salute to America” event.
Many Trump supporters and donors say the uproar over the president’s speech and his desire to throw a July 4 celebration has been overblown. They view as the president trying to celebrate the military and his pride in America.
“I love that Trump is not afraid to buck convention and put his own twist on these types of events. That’s the essence of America,” said Eberhart, the GOP donor. “My only advice to the president is that he should hold this parade in Phoenix instead of in the swamp of Washington, D.C.”
Daniel Lippman contributed reporting.