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Documents show how Trump landed at Lincoln Memorial for Fox News event

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In the spring of 2020, National Park Service staff prepared for an event President Donald Trump was hosting with Fox News to address the incipient covid-19 pandemic from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, site of historic protests and inaugural concerts. .

But, first, they had to inform Trump of the plans.

“As of now, we are looking at an event at Lincoln Base approximately 6:00-8:00 p.m. Sunday evening. No in-room event. Will see if this holds up once POTUS is notified later today,” Jeff wrote. Reinbold, park service superintendent for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, in an April 28, 2020 email to other agency officials.

From the next morning, the virtual “town hall” was no longer to be held at the base, the documents show. Trump’s two-hour encounter with Fox News anchors would take place inside the main chamber of the memorial, on the landing in the shade of the marble statue of a seated Lincoln. With the exception of an annual Lincoln anniversary tribute, federal regulations prohibit events from being held in this area.

The email is among hundreds of pages of recently released government documents that help shed light on how officials from multiple government agencies worked to stage the event at the Lincoln, one of many norm-defying moments of the presidency. Trump. They show that the Park Service provided security personnel at a cost of nearly $150,000 and that a US Secret Service official apologized to his colleagues for the planning process, calling it “$# !t show”.

After the event, officials noted that the memorial itself – then 98 years old – suffered scratches and nicks in its pink marble floor, according to a final memorandum.

Ultimately, Trump-appointed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt relaxed the rules, saying the venue was appropriate, given the president’s need to communicate with the American people during a “serious time of national crisis.” “. This discovery has already been reported.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice, a progressive group that acquired the documents through a public records request, said she believed Bernhardt exceeded her authority and allowed Trump to use “the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop. ”

“They’re trying to find a way, it seems, to give him the room when there’s no legal way to give him the room,” she said.

Verheyden-Hilliard’s group often advocates on behalf of those seeking access to public spaces, urging the government to properly license free speech activities and demonstrations along Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere.

Mike Litterst, a Park Service spokesman, did not respond to specific questions from The Washington Post. He said in a statement that the agency monitors activity associated with the town hall, as it does for any event not sponsored by the Park Service.

A Secret Service spokesman declined to comment. A Trump spokesperson 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 just how deadly and transmissible the novel coronavirus was. Mass business closures enacted weeks earlier had forced layoffs. The unemployment rate had quadrupled.

“I felt it was an important moment for the country,” Bernhardt told the Post.

On May 3, 2020, at the opening of City Hall, Trump saluted Fox anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, saying, “We’ve never had a better set than this, isn’t it? right?” according to a transcript.

The hosts asked about the criticisms that had already surfaced regarding the use of the memorial as the site of 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 that’s great for the American people to see.”

All presidents use national parks as backdrops for photo ops and promotional events, said Kristen Brengel of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that works to protect the national park system. For his inauguration in 2009, President Barack Obama held 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 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

But, by locating City Hall inside the memorial, along with Fox News, Brengel said, the Trump administration staged an event in defiance of federal regulations in a space held sacred by many. Americans.

“It was not a national emergency to hold an event inside the Lincoln Memorial,” she said. “It was about commercial use of a park site in the midst of a pandemic.”

On April 28, the day before the event was announced, officials began sharing the first information about it, according to the documents. Reinbold told colleagues it was planned for the memorial front porch and asked a Fox News staffer to apply for the necessary permit.

Reinbold mentioned plans could change after being presented to Trump that day.

United States Park Police and Secret Service security personnel began thinking about short-notice staffing. A Park Police official justified the need for additional officers on weekends 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 organize the event has 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, the event having been moved to the memorial chamber, Fox News wouldn’t need a permit after all, Reinbold wrote. He told his colleagues that it was not in his hands. “They are using the site as a venue and it is in no way a co-sponsored or NPS event,” 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 from the 1963 March on Washington, taken from behind the statue of Lincoln looking down at the entrance, which she hoped to replicate.

“We are also looking to make the camera shot in the attached photo,” she wrote on April 30.

An inscription marks the spot where King spoke, 18 steps from the upper level of the memorial.

On May 3, Bernhardt released a “determination dossier,” citing the growing pandemic and the president’s need to communicate with Americans as the reason for authorizing the event. “At this grave time of national crisis, the Memorial is an especially fitting place from which our President can deliver an official message to the American people,” Bernhardt wrote.

Verheyden-Hilliard rejected the idea of ​​the Home Secretary having such authority. “All they’re really doing is putting a windowpane on something that’s 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 for the purpose of providing 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 all protocols for protecting the space,” the company said.

A park memo after the event said the production team had “generally followed pre-agreed requirements”. But he also said: ‘Inside the Lincoln Chamber there are several scratches and nicks on the floor. Photographic documentation taken and forwarded to senior park management.

No photos of the damage were among the released documents. Fox News said it was not aware of any damage. “At no time was the network informed of any damage resulting from the event,” the company said.

Litterst said in the statement that the damage was “dealt with internally by park rangers.”

In correspondence in the days following the event, on how to answer reporters’ questions, Litterst made it clear to his colleagues that he did not want to give the impression that the agency would allow such an event to happen again: ” I think this is a good opportunity to slam the door on anyone who thinks they can make a similar request to do an in-room interview.