Last Sunday, Interior Secretary Bernhardt ordered the Lincoln Memorial closed to the public so that President Trump could “communicate an official message to the American people” via (what else?) Fox News on the current pandemic.
In his curious “Record of Determination,” Bernhardt felt the need to cite both the Constitution and statutory authority for his action, perhaps because he offered this whopper of an explanation for Trump’s Putin-style Town Hall broadcast:
“I anticipate his doing so will illuminate and reflect the values of our Nation during an unprecedented public-health crisis. Such an action will allow the President and the Nation to use Lincoln’s powerful presence and the solemnity of the Memorial to reflect on and draw from our Nation’s better angels, and to remind all of us that we can knit our often-divided Nation together in a time of trial.”
In reality, however, rather than a message of unity or a conclave of angels (better or worse), Trump proceeded to deliver one of his typical self-serving performances, including –
- His usual blaming Obama: “the previous administration. They did nothing.”
- Completely false claims “Biden has now written a letter of apology, because I did the right thing.”
- Attacks on the Democratic Governors of Michigan (“She ought to get back to running her state properly”) and Washington (“We had one governor, Inslee, who is always wanting something.”)
- And after admitting that “we’re going to lose anywhere from 75,000, 80,000 to 100,000 people” then declaring “we’re winning bigger than we’ve ever won before.”
And this was Trump trying to act presidential.
Yet, despite Bernhardt’s misplaced legal justifications, the law, specifically the Hatch Act, prohibits this type of electioneering inside federal facilities, especially parks and national monuments. In a 2018 ethics advisory, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act, opines that declared candidates may not use federal facilities for “campaign activities, such as town hall meetings [or] press conferences” – precisely what Trump did. This advisory also warns that:
“Federal agencies should ensure that candidates who visit their facilities to conduct official business do not engage in any political campaign or election activity during the visit.”
Of course, Bernhardt took no such steps. As such, he flouted the law and directly aided the never-ending campaign for a president who was a declared candidate for reelection almost from the day of his inauguration.
However, Hatch Act enforcement is limited to civil servants. Thus, Bernhardt’s directive likely shielded his helpless National Park Service subordinates from sanction for facilitating a political event inside a revered monument.
Legalisms aside, his prediction that the Trump-Lincoln Memorial event would “reflect the values of our Nation” actually reflects a cynical sycophancy as troubling as Bernhardt’s repeated claim that his top priority at Interior is to “fully embrace a culture of ethical compliance.”
Jeff Ruch is the Director of PEER’s Pacific office, having formerly served 25 years as the Executive Director of PEER.