White House gives tickets to July 4th extravaganza to GOP donors

By JULIET EILPERIN, DAN LAMOTHE AND JOSH DAWSEY | The Washington Post | Published: July 2, 2019

The White House is distributing tickets for President Donald Trump's July Fourth speech on the Mall to Republican donors and political appointees, prompting Democratic lawmakers to question whether the administration's planned celebration violates federal ethics rules.

The Republican National Committee confirmed on Tuesday that it had received some passes to Trump's address at the Lincoln Memorial, which it described as standard for presidential events. The speech Thursday will kick off the "Salute to America," a revamped Independence Day observance designed by the president that will also include a military flyover and an extended fireworks display.

The awarding of tickets to GOP supporters, which was first reported Monday by HuffPost, has exacerbated tensions between the Trump administration and lawmakers who have been pressing for a full accounting from federal agencies. 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.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, in a phone interview. "No ticketed political event should be paid for with taxpayer dollars."

Udall noted that 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.

"This is the typical stonewall of the Trump administration. But there will be hearings, and we will have an opportunity to grill the Trump administration on how much money was spent and where the money was taken from," he said, adding that agencies cannot just divert money unilaterally. "The Congress tells the executive branch how to spend money."

Amanda Yanchury, a spokeswoman for 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 Interior Department declined to comment Tuesday.

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."

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, who directs federal reform 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 added.

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 have 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.

Even as some critics questioned the White House's handling of access to the Lincoln Memorial, officials from the Pentagon and Interior Departments scrambled to transform Trump's vision of an elaborate military and pyrotechnics display into reality this week.

Two Abrams tanks, two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and an M88 recovery vehicle rolled across train tracks in southeast Washington on Tuesday, destined for the 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.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said that the Pentagon was not planning for tanks to be involved until late last week. But after the president requested them, they were shipped up on rail from Fort Stewart in Georgia, and 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 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 event. The celebration will likely cost taxpayers 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 flyover will include a performance by the Blue Angels, an F-35 jet from the Navy, an 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.

The Washington Post's Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.

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