Katherine Gypson, Dora Mekouar and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.
Updated: July 4, 2019 04:42 PM.
WASHINGTON — The United States is celebrating its Independence Day holiday Thursday with traditional fireworks displays, gatherings of family and friends in communities across the nation, and an unconventional address by President Donald Trump.
The Fourth of July festivities commemorate America’s declaration of independence from Britain in 1776. In the nation’s capital, Washington, the holiday attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall for a concert and massive fireworks display.
This year, Trump announced the addition of the “Salute to America” event to highlight U.S. military power, featuring his speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
"It will be the show of a lifetime!" he tweeted Wednesday.
As the country's 243rd celebration of its freedom dawned on Thursday, Trump wished Americans a "HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!"
"People are coming from far and wide to join us today and tonight," he said, "for what is turning out to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history of our Country, SALUTE TO AMERICA, an all day event at the Lincoln Memorial, culminating with large scale flyovers of the most modern and advanced aircraft anywhere in the World."
Not everyone was anxious to celebrate with Trump, but rather against him. The anti-war group Code Pink inflated a blimp depicting Trump as an angry baby in a diaper, a common site on Trump's visits to London. Others carried signs attacking him for bringing tanks to the National Mall on what traditionally has not been a day to showcase American military might.
The Defense Department confirmed Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford have accepted the president’s invitation for Thursday’s festivities.
Other top-ranking defense officials, including the acting undersecretary of the Army, the secretary of the Navy, the acting secretary of the Air Force, the deputy commander of the Marine Corps Development Command and the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard will also attend.
In addition, the Defense Department said the White House has provided 5,000 tickets to the event for other military personnel and their families.
Traditionally, U.S. presidents have kept a low profile during the Independence Day celebrations, and Trump’s critics have expressed concern that he will turn the event into a campaign-style rally as he prepares for his re-election campaign.
There have also been questions about the costs of adding the military hardware and troops as part of the celebration.
White House officials have countered that Trump will avoid politics and that the rally will be purely patriotic.
Trump tweeted Wednesday that the cost “will be very little compared to what it is worth.”
Since Trump took office, critics, including Democratic lawmakers in Congress, have denounced the president for using the U.S. military and military venues as political props.
“This spectacle is not a celebration of America and our values, it’s a shoddy ego boost for a national embarrassment of a president,” Rep. Mark Takano, chairman of House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, wrote on Twitter.
“America’s birthday is supposed to be for all Americans and not a partisan event for particular president or particular party, which is what the president’s actions are attempting to turn it into,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit monitoring government ethics and accountability.
VOA reached out to Republican lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee for reaction.
But Anita McBride, who served in previous Republican presidential administrations, said concerns are likely overblown.
“There are more important things that need attention than changing a venue and program for the celebrations,” said McBride, now with American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “I am not opposed to any president changing the location or program for Fourth of July celebrations.”