WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump’s aides ran down the list of possible backdrops for his latest Fox News event, they eventually landed on their favorite: the Lincoln Memorial, an iconic tribute to an American life, and one of Trump’s preferred places to add a prime-time touch of drama to his presidency.
There was just one catch: While Trump and many other presidents have hosted inauguration concerts and gatherings on the memorial’s steps, any event meant to draw an audience inside the interior near Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of a seated Lincoln is prohibited. The area above the top of the steps, where the columns begin, constitutes a boundary protected by federal law.
So on Sunday, when the president sat down with two Fox News anchors at Lincoln’s marbled feet during a coronavirus-focused virtual “town hall,” it was because a directive issued by David Bernhardt, the secretary of the interior, had allowed them to do so.
Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist whose Senate nomination was contested by Democrats who pointed to multiple accusations of conflicts of interest and ethical violations, ordered the memorial temporarily closed for the event, citing the coronavirus.
“Given the extraordinary crisis that the American people have endured, and the need for the president to exercise a core governmental function to address the nation about an ongoing public-health crisis,” Bernhardt wrote in an order issued Friday, “I am exercising my authority to facilitate the opportunity for the president to conduct this address within the Lincoln Memorial.”
The directive surprised officials at the National Park Service, who are used to scrambling to fill requests from the Trump White House, including making sure Army tanks can safely be parked on the National Mall, as they had to do last summer for an Independence Day celebration the president presided over using the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop.
Bernhardt’s action enraged critics, who complained that Trump had essentially conducted a partisan open mic night. But it pleased Trump and his aides, who had succeeded in creating the element of presidential sweep that he had been craving after weeks of negative news coverage and Twitter outbursts.
Two people familiar with the town hall planning who were not authorized to speak about it said that last Tuesday the White House had initially agreed to host the event on the steps of the memorial. By Wednesday, the White House had an update: The interview would take place inside.
When asked to comment on the specifics of the decision to host the event at the memorial, a White House official called it at a “joint decision” with Fox News, though three people involved in the planning said the decision had been made by the White House.
A Fox News spokeswoman pointed to remarks during the telecast, when Bret Baier, an anchor who took turns asking questions with Martha MacCallum, his fellow moderator, and presenting videos of Fox viewers asking theirs, mentioned that the choice of venue had been Trump’s, and that it had stirred controversy.
“And I did say this would be nice, but I thought it was your choice, not ours?” Trump responded. “And I had not heard, what can you criticize? I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight, here, and I think it’s great for the American people to see, this is a great work of art, aside from the fact that that was a great man, this is a great work of art.”
And though one of the nation’s most hallowed spaces had been opened up to him, Trump did little to keep the politics surrounding his response to the coronavirus out of the interview, which was watched by about 4 million viewers.
He predicted that the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country may reach as high as 100,000 in the United States, twice as many as he had forecast just two weeks ago, even as he has been pressing states to reopen the economy.
Nor was he questioned by the moderators about some familiar claims he has made in connection to the virus. The president again said his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, had written him a letter of apology after criticizing the president’s decision to close the country’s borders to travelers from China. “Never happened,” T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for Biden, said Monday.
In claiming that he had been uniquely prescient in closing the border to Chinese visitors in late January, he also said that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of his administration’s lead advisers on the crisis, had publicly downplayed the threat as late as a month later. While Fauci had advised against Americans changing their daily activities at the time, he also warned that the virus could become “a major outbreak.”
Trump also mischaracterized what he had actually done to keep travelers from entering the United States from China, claiming that he had “closed down the country to China,” when really the borders were closed only to Chinese travelers, not to everyone traveling from China.
At one point, Trump compared his treatment as president to Lincoln’s.
“Look, I am greeted with a hostile press the likes of which no president has ever seen,” Trump said. “The closest would be that gentleman right up there. They always said Lincoln — nobody got treated worse than Lincoln. I believe I am treated worse.”
The president’s performance incensed Democratic lawmakers.
“What the American people want to see is their president rising to the moment and providing real leadership during this crisis, not using our sacred national monuments as brazenly political backdrops,” Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee for the Interior Department and the environment.
“Instead, President Trump chose to sit inside the Lincoln Memorial — a solemn and hallowed place in our national heritage — to berate the press, play the victim and spread falsehoods during a global emergency,” he said. “The National Mall belongs to the American people, and continuing to give the president free rein to use it for political grandstanding is a terrible mistake.”
In a statement, Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, called the event a “moment of national unity” that brought Americans together.
“President Trump spoke to millions of Americans on television from the Lincoln Memorial, one of the most iconic and unifying symbols in the world, with a message of hope and optimism about the American dream,” Deere said.
The weekend of his inauguration, Trump used the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop to bask in what he thought was the singular nature of his inauguration concert: “I don’t know if this has ever been done before,” he remarked, though it had. Then last July, there was the “Salute to America” celebration, complete with tanks and a flyover by military jets.
In two months, Trump is expecting to reprise that event, a day after traveling to Mount Rushmore to see the fireworks. He has promised that attendees will be spread 6 feet apart: “We’ll have to do that in a very interesting way. Maybe we’ll even do it greater. Leave a little extra distance,” Trump told reporters last month.