WASHINGTON - The National Park Service is diverting nearly $2.5 million in entrance and recreation fees primarily intended to improve parks across the country to cover costs associated with President Donald Trump's Independence Day celebration Thursday on the National Mall, according to two individuals familiar with the arrangement.
Trump administration officials have consistently refused to say how much taxpayers will have to pay for the expanded celebration on the National Mall this year, which the president has dubbed "Salute to America." The two individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, confirmed the transfer of the Park Service funds Tuesday.
The diversion of the park fees represents just a fraction of the extra costs the government faces as a result the event, which also includes expansive displays of military hardware, flyovers by an array of jets including Air Force One, the deployment of tanks on the Mall and an extended pyrotechnics display. By comparison, according to former Park Service deputy director Denis Galvin, the entire Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall typically costs the agency about $2 million.
The White House is also distributing VIP tickets for Trump's planned speech at the Lincoln Memorial to Republican donors and political appointees, prompting objections from Democratic lawmakers who argue the president has turned the annual celebration into a campaign-like event.
The Republican National Committee and Trump's reelection campaign confirmed Tuesday that they had received passes they were handing out for the event.
"We've never seen anything like this," Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said in a phone interview. "No ticketed political event should be paid for with taxpayer dollars."
The White House referred questions about the celebration to the Interior Department, which declined to comment.
Even as some critics questioned the White House's handling of access to the Lincoln Memorial, officials from the Pentagon and Interior Departments were scrambling this week to transform Trump's vision of an elaborate military and pyrotechnics display into reality.
Two Abrams tanks, two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and an M88 recovery vehicle sat on train tracks in the District of Columbia on Tuesday, destined for the National Mall. Administration officials were finalizing aspects of Thursday's schedule, according to a senior White House official, including the plan to have one of the planes in Air Force One's fleet zoom overhead as Trump takes the stage that night.
Separately, according to two individuals familiar with the matter, the White House is negotiating with Park Service officials over whether to project an image from the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission onto the Washington Monument for the event. Typically the agency does not allow projected images on monuments or historic structures, on the grounds that they should be preserved in their original form.
By tapping entrance fees to cover the presidential event, Interior is siphoning money that is typically used to enhance the visitor experience either on the National Mall or at smaller parks across the country, on projects ranging from repairing roads and bridges to habitat restoration. The transfer accounts to nearly 5 percent of the funds that less-profitable parks tapped into last year for upgrades, according to budget documents.
"This is a breach of trust with the public, said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, in an email. "The public pays parks fees to fix national parks and for educational programs not the president's parade."
Udall said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had yet to respond to a request he and two other Senate Democrats made two weeks ago for a full accounting of how the event would be conducted and what it would cost.
Amanda Yanchury, a spokeswoman for House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said in an email that McCollum "takes her oversight responsibilities seriously and will exercise her role as chair to get a full accounting of the taxpayer costs incurred by this event."
The awarding of tickets to GOP supporters, which was first reported by HuffPost, has further exacerbated tensions between the Trump administration and Democratic lawmakers. The White House has also provided a select number of tickets to top staffers at federal agencies, who are free to distribute them as they would like.
An official from the RNC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the group's inner workings, said in an email that the Democratic National Committee had also received passes to White House events when a Democrat was in the Oval Office.
"It's standard practice for the RNC to receive a small number of tickets to events just as the DNC did under Democrat Presidents," the official said. "This is routine for events like the White House Christmas Open Houses, Garden Tours in spring and fall, etc."
Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump's reelection campaign, said in an email that his staff also received passes to the president's Lincoln Memorial address.
"As a courtesy, the campaign was provided tickets for staff and their families and friends, much like for the Easter Egg Roll or White House garden tours," Murtaugh said.
While the White House has hosted limited tours for years, this year's gathering on the Mall marks a departure because presidents have not traditionally participated in the nation's Independence Day celebration.
Brendan Fischer, federal reform director for the Campaign Legal Center, said in a phone interview that while it may not violate federal ethics law to distribute limited tickets to the president's speech to party contributors, "it certainly looks bad."
"Limiting public access to a public monument on Independence Day in favor of wealthy donors just sends a signal that our political system favors the wealthy and well-connected," he said.
Since federal appropriations law prohibits using public money for political purposes, Fischer noted, the issue will depend on what Trump says in his speech. If he refers to some of the 2020 presidential hopefuls, or polling related to the race, Trump's reelection campaign may be required to reimburse the U.S. Treasury.
"The content of the event, and the nature of the event, is probably the determining factor" as opposed to donors getting to see Trump up close, he said.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, said the Pentagon was not planning for tanks to be involved in the July Fourth event until late last week. But after the president requested them, they were shipped up on rail from Fort Stewart in Georgia, and first spotted by an Associated Press photographer on Monday night.
The list of fighter jets and other planes involved in Thursday's military flyover also has grown, with the Pentagon carrying out requests from the White House while the Interior officials organize the overall celebration. As late as last week, according to two defense officials, the U.S. military was planning to have only about 300 service members involved in the celebration, primarily from drill teams and bands.
"The military isn't in charge of this thing," said one defense official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. "This is a Department of Interior event that DOD is giving support to, and the White House is giving guidance on how they'd like us to celebrate the Fourth.
The "Salute to America" marks the culmination of Trump's two-year quest to mount a military-style extravaganza inspired by his visit to a Bastille Day celebration in Paris in 2017. His previous efforts to stage a Veterans Day military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018 were scuttled after estimated costs ballooned to the tens of millions of dollars.
The Pentagon has referred virtually all questions about the celebration and the U.S. military's involvement to the White House - a function, officials said, of the president's desire to have some elements of surprise in the event.
"We are referring everyone to the White House who will be making announcements about the event timeline and participants," said Jonathan Rath Hoffman, the Pentagon's top politically-appointed spokesman.
But the department is devoting significant resources to the celebration likely to measure in the millions of dollars given the additional construction, transportation of heavy equipment and personnel, additional security, price of fuel and overtime pay that federal employees will receive.
The event will include appearances by the Blue Angels, an F-35 jet from the Navy, at least one aircraft from Marine Helicopter Squadron One and one of the planes used in the fleet for Air Force One, the specialized airliner that carries the president.
It will also include a B-2 stealth bomber, the batwing shaped jet made famous during the Persian Gulf War, and F-22 Raptors, the Pentagon fighter jet, said a defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss plans before they are announced. Those details were first reported Tuesday by CNN.
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The Washington Post's Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.
This article was written by Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Dan Lamothe, reporters for The Washington Post.