Reeling from bad press about his (already apparent) incompetent handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Donald Trump needed a boost in the spring of 2020 as his sunny predictions about the pandemic “disappearing” were proving wholly inaccurate. So his staff called on his go-to-enablers at Fox News to arrange a photo-op that might do the trick. Billed as a town hall (albeit one with no live audience present), the plan was for Trump to sit at the base of the Lincoln Memorial and field some screened questions from “ordinary” Americans hand-selected by his favorite propaganda outlet. The date was set at May 3, 2020.
But apparently sitting at the base of the Memorial just wasn’t good enough for Trump.
The Washington Post reports on “hundreds of pages of newly released government documents that help fill in the picture of how officials from multiple government agencies worked to engineer the event.” As reported by Jonathan O‘Connell (emphasis added):
By the next morning, the virtual “town hall” was no longer to be held at the base, the documents show. Trump’s two-hour sit-down with Fox News anchors would take place inside the memorial’s main chamber, on the landing in the shadow of the marble statue of a seated Lincoln. With the exception of an annual birthday tribute to Lincoln, federal regulations bar events from being held in that area.
As O'Connell points out, several nationally recognized figures, including President Barack Obama and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have held events and made speeches from the base and steps of the memorial. But there is a lengthy federal regulation designating exactly which spots, including the floor of the chamber itself, are prohibited for such events. There is even a helpful diagram within the regulation itself, specifically shading those spots where such public events are prohibited. The reason: These are considered “hallowed spaces” for the appreciation and enjoyment of the American public alone. They are not meant to provide impressive setpieces for politicians to use or abuse.
O’Connell interviewed Kristen Brengel, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, about Trump’s debasement of the memorial, noting his open defiance of federal regulations. “This wasn’t a national emergency to do an event inside the Lincoln Memorial,” Bengal stated. “This was the commercial use of a park site in the middle of a pandemic.”
But such niceties apparently mattered little to Trump and his entourage. The Park Service’s superintendent for the National Mall and Memorial Parks had already advised other federal agencies that the event would not occur within the chamber itself, but that didn’t matter, either. By the next day, Trump had already secured the approval of his interior secretary, David Bernhardt, to flout the rules.
In a flowery “Record of Determination,” babbling with praise for the “revered and iconic” Memorial, and its “testament to the character and resiliency of the American people,” Bernhardt effectively went over the head of the Park Service to satisfy Trump’s whims. This self-justifying memorandum also specifically noted that “in this grave time of national crisis,” the Memorial was “uniquely appropriate” for a president to communicate “an official message” to the American people.
“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,” Bernhardt wrote.
O’Connell’s article details how multiple agencies bent over backward to accommodate Trump’s wishes, juggling to justify hauling in additional security personnel and Secret Service for the weekend work. In the end, according to O’Connell’s article, they relied on an emergency order issued weeks prior, vaguely allowing “mission critical adjustments” to be made to respond to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Fox News sent over photographs depicting the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—in order to secure the most flattering camera angles for Trump’s show.
As O’Connell reports, the production crew (presumably Fox’s) ended up defacing the floor of the chamber.
A Park Service memo after the event said the production crew had “generally followed previously agreed to requirements.” But it also said: “Inside the Lincoln Chamber there are several scratches and gouges on the flooring. Photo documentation taken and referred to the park’s senior management.”
No photos were available of the damage.
Here are some excerpts from the transcript of that “town hall, “ demonstrating the heartfelt commitment of this administration to “use the solemnity of the Memorial” to “reflect and draw from our Nation’s better angels,” and above all, to “knit our often-divided nation together in a time of trial:”
On the virus itself and the administration’s response:
Donald Trump: (01:43)
It came from China, it should have been stopped. It could have been stopped on the spot. They chose not to do it, or something happened. Either there was incompetence or they didn’t do it for some reason, and we’re going to have to find out what that reason was.
Donald Trump: (04:43)
No, we did the right thing. I do look back on it because my attitude was, “We’re not going to shut it down.” And look, we’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100 thousand people. That’s a horrible thing, we shouldn’t lose one person over this. This should have been stopped in China. It should have been stopped. But if we didn’t do it, the minimum we would have lost is a million-two, a million-four, million-five that’s the minimum.
On the administration’s coordination of the response with individual states:
Speaker 1: (11:53)
Well, speaking of that, Gretchen Whitmer, the governor in Michigan, she’s saying this morning on TV, “We don’t have the reagents we need. We don’t have the swabs we need.” She’s still saying that she can’t get the testing that she wants.
Donald Trump: (12:04)
Look, look. We had a phone call five days ago with the governors. I was on the call with Vice President Mike Pence, who’s done a great job. He’s the head of the committee, the task force. Every governor there, we asked it, “What do you need?” Not one governor needed anything. Now all of a sudden you see [Whitmer] on the Sunday … I watched it. “Well, we should get this and we should get that.” She ought to get back to running her state properly, because she should have brought it up on the phone call.
Donald Trump: (12:33)
I was on that call for an hour and a half. I stayed right till the end. And at the end I said, “Does anybody need anything?” We had one governor, Inslee, who’s always wanting something. And frankly, he didn’t do a very good job on nursing homes, as far as I’m concerned, state of Washington. And he said, “We need swabs.” I said, “Why don’t you get them yourself? But if you can’t, we’ll get them.” And I could say the same thing about [Whitmer].
On school closures:
Speaker 1: (18:24)
… are you going to urge the nation’s universities and schools to go back in September?
Donald Trump: (18:30)
I am. I want them to go back. We have to get our country back. Yeah. I don’t want to do this forever. I watched a very good former governor of Indiana, he preceded Mike Pence, good governor, and he’s the head of Purdue. It’s a great school. And I saw him the other day. He wants to go back. He’s going back. Purdue, big school. Fantastic. They’re going back. We have to go back. We have to go back. Whatever it is …
Donald Trump: (18:58)
I would say with the exception of teachers at a certain age, maybe they should wait till this thing passes. It will pass. It’s going to pass.
Bret Baier: (19:17)
You did talk a lot about hydroxychloroquine for a while.
Donald Trump: (19:18)
I do. And I still do.
Bret Baier: (19:19)
And there were some studies that came out that questioned the cardiac tie, but you stopped talking about it.
Donald Trump: (19:25)
One study, one study. But there were studies that came out that say it’s very good, too. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve had three calls in the last three days, four days of people that took it and they’re giving it credit for saving their lives. And other countries are using it. They’re bragging about it. You look at their numbers …
Donald Trump: (19:45)
Here’s what we’ve been reduced to in this country. The Democrats, the radical left, whatever you want to … would rather see people … I’m going to be very nice. I’m not going to say die. I’m going to say, would rather see people not get well, because they think I’m going to get-
Donald Trump: (20:03)
I’m going to get credit if Hydroxychloroquine works, and I don’t care about it. I have nothing to do with it, by the way.
Donald Trump: (20:56)
And, but look, we started the other day with Gilead. I really think so, but we’re going to have other things. And it could be that Hydroxy is going to be… We don’t lose anything with Hydroxy. Bret, it’s been out there for so many years. Then the started doing the false reports, it’s making people… It’s been used for numerous things for many years. People aren’t dying from it. But they would rather-
Bret Baier: (21:19)
Obviously doctors are involved there and they—
Donald Trump: (21:20)
Yeah. They don’t want to see a good result, and that’s very sad.
On his administration’s initial response to the threat posed by COVID-19:
Leslie Coffield: (21:32)
President Trump, it’s been widely reported that the threat of the Coronavirus was included in your daily intelligence briefings for weeks prior to the first confirmed case in the U.S. Can you please explain to us why you did not act sooner, to prepare this country for this pandemic?
Donald Trump: (21:47)
Okay. I love the question, actually. Because, what I did, way early, I closed our country to China. Nancy Pelosi was a month later saying, “It’s going to pass.” Everybody, even Tony Fauci was saying, “It’s going to pass, not gonna be a big deal.” Schumer was talking about all sorts of things. This was long after I closed the country. They called me a racist. They said xenophobic. Biden said he was xenophobic. Biden has now written a letter of apology, because I did the right thing.
Donald Trump: (22:18)
I saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Okay. She’s asking me the question about intelligence. I have the head of the intelligence agencies here today, and here’s the exact thing. We have it, it’s going to be released tomorrow, or the next day, but I released it today. On January 23, I was told that there could be a virus coming in, but it was of no real import. In other words, it wasn’t, “Oh, we got to do something. We got to do something.” It was a brief conversation, and it was only on January 23...
So just to recap: Donald Trump hijacked the Lincoln Memorial in violation of federal law in order to blame the COVID-19 crisis on China; to blame Democrats in general and criticize Democratic governors in particular for his administration’s errors; to falsify to the American public the number of deaths that were likely to occur; to hype a non-existent “cure” to millions of Americans; to blame doctors for not administering that “cure;” to repeatedly reassure the nation that the pandemic would soon “pass;” and to defend his own administration’s initial failure to take the pandemic seriously.
All of these points were later proved to be either demonstrably wrong or outright lies.
Somehow, I doubt Lincoln would have been impressed.