The National Park Service (NPS) is in hot water with ethics watchdogs for a slickly produced video promoting President Trump along with its plans to host a fireworks spectacle after his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
Trump is slated to give his convention speech on Thursday from the White House South Lawn, followed by fireworks at the nearby Washington Monument on Park Service property. Those plans come on the heels of an NPS video publicly praising the president for his involvement in legislation providing more funding to parks.
The two instances are leading to allegations that federal employees are engaging in political activity while at work — a violation of the Hatch Act.
“Federal appropriations laws make it clear government dollars are meant to be used to serve the American public, not to help political office holders remain in power, and that appears to be what this video and what this event on the Mall is designed to do,” Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told The Hill.
Trump has repeatedly pushed for fireworks displays near national monuments for various events, such as this year’s Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore. But ethics experts say timing this week’s fireworks with a major prime-time campaign speech is the most clear cut example yet that Trump seeks political benefits from using government property as a backdrop.
“Enlisting the Park Service to put on a show for the Republican National Convention is another deviation, even from his own past practice, and a bridge too far in using federal resources for political activity,” Sherman said.
The Republican National Convention has said it will reimburse the NPS for the costs of the display, but a heavily redacted copy of the permit makes it unclear what those expenses are and how they were calculated.
“The National Park Service will recover from the RNC all costs incurred as a result of the activity, including NPS administrative costs for permit preparation and management of the event, and monitoring of the activity to ensure compliance with the conditions of the permit,” NPS spokesman Mike Litterst said by email.
The agency did not respond to questions on the total cost or the ethical issues raised.
Any group can apply to have a First Amendment event at a national park that doesn’t otherwise fit within the park service’s mission. Ethics experts say it’s very difficult for career NPS officials to refuse a request, from the White House or any other entity.
“The blame for politicizing these spaces lies with the president and the folks asking the Park Service to do this kind of stuff,” said Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert with the Campaign Legal Center.
“There’s a reason no other president has given a campaign speech in the Rose Garden. There is a reason no other president has given a campaign speech at the Lincoln Memorial. When we say no other president has done X, Y or Z, there is a reason why. It’s because they know it’s wrong,” she said.
“Were exposing this gap in ethics enforcement and finding norms that should be laws.”
Ethics watchdogs have raised concerns about other aspects of this year’s GOP convention, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech from Jerusalem while on official business. A House Democrat on Tuesday announced an investigation into the circumstances of Pompeo’s remarks.
Critics say Trump’s desire to use public lands for his campaign goes beyond fireworks displays. A video from the Interior Department released this month praises the president for the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that provides extra funding to parks that Trump has proposed cutting in each annual budget since he took office.
The video shows hikers, park rangers and scenic national parks with the text: “President Trump called on Congress to protect our national parks and federal lands.”
The video later uses quotes taken out of context from The Hill and Politico praising the bipartisan legislation.
One quote, calling the bill “the legislation of a generation,” was from an op-ed in The Hill authored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is running for reelection in a tight race.
Similarly, the ad attributes to Politico a quote calling it the “‘holy grail’ of conservation legislation,” a phrase the outlet references being used in a campaign ad from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), another vulnerable Republican up for reelection.
“You shouldn’t have a federal government agency putting out a video that’s essentially a very loosely disguised campaign spot,” Marsco said. “My sense is that this administration doesn’t particularly care about respecting the line between political and official business, and that’s the problem. They’re willing to use agencies and public lands for political purposes.”
Others say the video is essentially a free campaign ad for Trump.
“What they’re doing is really subsidizing their campaign using federal tax dollars,” said Phil Francis, chairman of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks who worked for the NPS for 41 years before retiring.
“Here’s a guy who is using parks as his campaign props and using federal employees in his campaign. That’s very inappropriate,” he said.
Interior said the video was cleared by its ethics office and legal counsel.
“It’s unfortunate and sad to see uninformed special interest groups attack the integrity of the Departmental Ethics Office and such a historic and bipartisan legislative achievement that will ensure generations of Americans can enjoy national parks and public lands,” Interior spokesman Ben Goldey said in a statement.
CREW argues the video violates the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, which states, “No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other act shall be used directly or indirectly, including by private contractor, for publicity or propaganda purposes.”
Sherman said the video, like the fireworks display, may violate the Hatch Act.
“I think both of these are clear examples of this administration trying to use the tools of the federal government to support his reelection, and it suggests that federal employees are being requested or pressured to help facilitate that effort, which is exactly what federal statutes like the Hatch Act were designed to prevent,” he said.