In the spring of 2020, National Park Service personnel were preparing for an event President Donald Trump was holding with Fox News to address the nascent covid-19 pandemic from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, site of historic protests and inaugural concerts.
“As of now we’re looking at an event at base of Lincoln from 6-8 or so Sunday night. No event in chamber. I will see if that holds once POTUS is briefed later today,” Jeff Reinbold, the Park Service’s superintendent for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, wrote in an April 28, 2020, email to other agency officials.
By the next morning, the virtual “town hall” was no longer to be held at the base, the documents show. Trump’s two-hour sit-down with Fox News anchors would take place inside the memorial’s main chamber, on the landing in the shadow of the marble statue of a seated Lincoln. With the exception of an annual birthday tribute to Lincoln, federal regulations bar events from being held in that area.
The email is among hundreds of pages of newly released government documents that help fill in the picture of how officials from multiple government agencies worked to engineer the event at the Lincoln, one of the many norm-defying moments of the Trump presidency. They show that the Park Service provided security personnel at a cost of nearly $150,000 and that a Secret Service official apologized to colleagues for the planning process, calling it a “$#!t show.”
In the end, the Trump-appointed interior secretary, David Bernhardt, relaxed the rules by finding that the venue was appropriate, given the president’s need to communicate with the American people during a “grave time of national crisis.” That finding has been previously reported.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, the executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice, a progressive group that acquired the documents through a public-records request, said she believes Bernhardt exceeded his authority and allowed Trump to use “the Lincoln Memorial as his stage set.”
“They’re trying to find a way, it looks like, to give him the chamber when there is no legal way to give him the chamber,” she said.
Verheyden-Hilliard’s group often litigates on behalf of those seeking access to public spaces, pressing the government to properly allow free-speech activities and protests along Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere.
Mike Litterst, a spokesman for the Park Service, did not address specific questions from The Washington Post. He said in a statement that the agency monitored the activity associated with the town hall, as it does any event not sponsored by the Park Service.
A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to comment. A Trump spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Bernhardt said in an interview that he stood by the decision and that government lawyers had approved it. At the time, federal officials and the nation were in the early stages of learning how deadly and transmissible the novel coronavirus was. Mass business closures enacted weeks before had forced layoffs. The unemployment rate had quadrupled.
“I felt that it was an important moment for the country,” Bernhardt told The Post.
On May 3, 2020, at the opening of the town hall, Trump greeted Fox anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum by saying, “We never had a more beautiful set than this did we?” according to a transcript.
The hosts asked about criticism that had already surfaced about the use of the memorial as the site for the event.
“What can you criticize? It’s — I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight here,” Trump said. “And I think it’s great for the American people to see.”
All presidents use national parks as backdrops for photo opportunities and promotional events, said Kristen Brengel of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the national park system. For his 2009 inaugural, President Barack Obama hosted a concert on the steps of the memorial and was photographed in the chamber. Four years later, he gave a speech on the steps as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
But, by siting the town hall inside the memorial, with Fox News, Brengel said, the Trump administration held an event in defiance of federal regulations in a space that is hallowed ground to many Americans.
“This wasn’t a national emergency to do an event inside the Lincoln Memorial,” she said. “This was the commercial use of a park site in the middle of a pandemic.”
On April 28, the day before the event was announced, officials began sharing early information about it with one another, according to the documents. Reinbold told colleagues that it was being planned for the front steps of the memorial and directed a Fox News staffer to apply for the necessary permit.
Reinbold mentioned that the plans could change after they were presented to Trump that day.
Security personnel at the U.S. Park Police and the Secret Service began to make staffing considerations on short notice. A Park Police official justified the need to call in extra officers on the weekend by citing an emergency order issued weeks earlier allowing for “mission critical adjustments” to help the nation respond to the pandemic.
A Secret Service official helping to staff the event apologized for the process. “Sorry this is such a $#!t show. Will have answers shortly,” wrote the official, whose name is redacted in the documents.
The next day, with the event moved into the memorial’s chamber, Fox News would not need a permit after all, Reinbold wrote. He told colleagues it was out of his hands. “They are using the site as a venue and this is not a co-sponsored or NPS event in any way,” he wrote on April 29.
Trump and Fox announced that the event would take place four days later, on a Sunday evening.
Fox News began making arrangements. A Fox staffer sent Park Service officials a photo taken from the 1963 March on Washington, shot from behind Lincoln’s statue looking out at the entrance, that she hoped to replicate.
“We are also looking to achieve the camera shot in the attached picture,” she wrote on April 30.
An inscription marks the spot where King spoke, 18 steps from the top landing of the memorial.
On May 3, Bernhardt issued a “record of determination,” citing the growing pandemic and the need for the president to communicate with Americans as reasoning to allow the event. “In this grave time of national crisis, the Memorial is a uniquely appropriate place from which our President can communicate an official message to the American people,” Bernhardt wrote.
Verheyden-Hilliard rejected the idea that the interior secretary had such authority. “All they are really doing is putting window dressing on something that is clearly illegal,” she said.
In response to questions from The Post, Fox News Media said in a statement that the station had been approached by the Trump administration and “agreed to moderate the May 2020 event in an effort to provide critical information to the American public.”
“The location of the Lincoln Memorial was proposed by the administration and Fox News worked directly with the National Park Service to ensure the production followed every protocol to protect the space,” the company said.
A Park Service memo after the event said the production crew had “generally followed previously agreed to requirements.” But it also said: “Inside the Lincoln Chamber there are several scratches and gouges on the flooring. Photo documentation taken and referred to the park’s senior management.”
No photos of damage were among the documents released. Fox News said it was unaware of any damage. “At no point was the network made aware of any damages as a result of the event,” the company said.
Litterst said in the statement that the damage was “addressed in-house by the park’s conservators.”
In correspondence in the days after the event, about how to respond to reporters’ questions, Litterst made clear to colleagues that he did not want to give the impression that the agency would allow such an event to take place again: “I think it’s a good opportunity to slam the door on anyone who thinks they can make a similar ask to do an interview in the chamber.”