The Cleverest Campaign-Finance End Run of the Year

Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo

This July Fourth, the fireworks in D.C. are only going to intensify, both figuratively and literally. During what is being billed as the largest pyrotechnics display since the bicentennial celebration that took place here on July 4, 1976, President Donald Trump will be front and center addressing crowds from the Lincoln Memorial.

The expansion of the fireworks program beyond the usual yearly display was made possible by a healthy donation of explosives (around $750,000 worth) from Phantom Fireworks, the leading retailer of consumer pyrotechnics in the country. It’s all part of the administration’s attempt to enhance an extraordinarily expensive celebration that Democrats view as little more than a state-sponsored campaign event.

In addition to its love of country, Phantom Fireworks also loves its piece of the billion-dollar industry it dominates, and would hate to see anything happen to it. Its concerns are no doubt particularly grave in light of the fact that while Trump’s 25 percent tariffs on Chinese goods do not currently target pyrotechnics imports, the next $300 billion round certainly could.

It seems likely, then, that this year’s display will in no small part be about celebrating free trade in addition to independence. It also seems conceivable that in the private meeting between Phantom’s CEO Bruce Zoldan and Trump, which took place on May 22, Zoldan asked Trump about more than his favorite type of bottle rocket. And then maybe offered him something too.

This is not the first time the fireworks industry has flexed its political muscle. During the Obama years, the fireworks lobby unsuccessfully advocated for a number of reforms—from granting governors the ability to stamp out labor disputes at ports, which held up pyrotechnics imports, to deregulation of state laws banning the sale of pyrotechnics, to reduced oversight on pyrotechnic decibel levels. As the director of the American Pyrotechnics Association told Politico at the time, “what’s loud to me might not be loud to you.”

With 99 percent of consumer fireworks sold in the U.S. manufactured in China, fireworks retailers and exhibitors like Phantom consider it essential to prevent the imposition of tariffs. Because of the chemical, explosive, and health hazards involved in mass-producing cheap consumer fireworks, it’s next to impossible to mass-produce these types of pyrotechnics in the States.

What better way, then, to preserve corporate profits than “donating” fireworks to the de facto mega–campaign rally of a sitting president whose love of explosions and pro wrestling is surpassed only by junior high–level teens? To give credit where credit is due, Phantom has come up with a most creative way to bypass campaign finance laws. Only with a president like ours could an industry be salvaged through the shock and awe of 20 minutes worth of kaboom-in-the-sky.


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