Democrats decry use of park fees for Trump's July 4 event as 'slush fund'

Democratic lawmakers and environmental activists are sharply criticizing plans by the Trump administration to reportedly use $2.5 million in National Park Service (NPS) maintenance funds to help cover the cost of President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE’s “Salute to America” event on Independence Day.

The Washington Post on Tuesday cited two individuals who said NPS recreation fees had been diverted that day, and critics are saying the move may be an illegal use of funds that are generated through national park entrance fees.

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Clean water or mining pollution for the nation's favorite wilderness? Buttigieg slams July 4 military parade: I think it makes America 'look smaller' MORE (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Interior Department spending, said using the fees without congressional consent was akin to establishing a “slush fund.”

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“These fees are not a slush fund for this administration to use at will. They are meant to improve our national parks, keep them safe and protected for Americans to enjoy, and are clearly not to be used for a political rally,” McCollum said in a statement Wednesday.

Recreation fees are collected by national parks through admission fees. The funds typically go toward park maintenance as well as seasonal hiring, such as for additional fire fighters. The NPS system is facing a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog and the Trump administration has routinely suggested cutting the agency’s budget. 

Some Democrats have raised concerns that the park fees are being used to bolster the spectacle surrounding Trump’s Thursday evening speech from the Lincoln Memorial, which they fear will serve as a campaign-style rally, with VIP seating for top campaign donors, and politicize a national holiday that has otherwise been apolitical.

"Trump should not be turning a July 4th celebration into a political rally for his friends, donors, and reelection team. Today I'm demanding answers as to why the Interior Department is using park entrance fees to help pay for it," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of the Interior Department, tweeted on Wednesday.

Democrats on the other side of the Capitol made similar remarks.

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"Trump is stealing National Park Service resources and using the military as a political prop to turn the Fourth of July into a rally for his wealthiest donors,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (D-Ore.) in a statement Wednesday. “This is the stuff of authoritarian regimes, exactly what patriotic Americans were fighting against in 1776. Congressional Republicans who shrug at this will be complicit when Trump takes his authoritarian ambitions to the next level.”

Trump’s July 4 event on the National Mall, which the White House has said will not be political, is designed to showcase the U.S. military and will feature tanks and flyovers. It has been heavily criticized from the start, in part for appearing to indulge Trump’s ego, but also for the costs that are expected to come with moving military equipment and organizing flyovers.

Trump on Wednesday defended the costs amid allegations from Democrats that the event will essentially be a campaign rally with taxpayers footing the bill.

The president asserted that the cost of the event "will be very little compared to what it is worth."

"We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel," Trump tweeted. "We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!"

Some Democrats have said they plan to call for an investigation into the spending surrounding the spectacle.

“The true costs and details are still a mystery, because the Trump administration refuses to be up front with Congress or the American people about where this money is coming from,” said Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallDemocrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections Republicans should get behind the 28th Amendment New Mexico says EPA abandoned state in fight against toxic 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-N.M.) in a statement Wednesday. “The American people are fed up with this egregious self-serving behavior at the taxpayer’s expense. There must be accountability and I plan to call on for an investigation into how much is actually being spent and whether any laws have been broken.”

McCollum added that the administration’s use of the recreation fees without consent was shocking.

“It is unbelievable that Congress – specifically the Appropriations Committee – was not informed of this use of taxpayer dollars before it was reported publicly. Mr. Trump’s event is on federal grounds. The National Mall belongs to all of us,” she said in a statement.

She also threatened to launch an investigation.

“I’m prepared to use my full oversight authority as Chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Committee to determine how this decision was made and hold the responsible parties accountable. This administration needs to be reminded that the power of the purse belongs to Congress.”

When asked about the reported diversion of funds, a National Park Service spokesman did not address the issue directly.

 "The Department of the Interior is committed to providing the American people a fantastic celebration of our nation’s birthday," Mike Litterst, chief of communications for National Mall and Memorial Parks, said in a statement Wednesday to The Hill. "We are doing so consistent with the Department’s mission and historical practices."

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The administration has been tight-lipped regarding many of the specifics on Thursday’s event, with details emerging largely through Trump’s tweets and pictures of military equipment arriving in Washington, D.C.

This is not the first time the administration has used recreation fees in nontraditional ways without prior approval from Congress. Earlier this year, NPS used the funds to keep national parks open during the record-long 35-day partial government shutdown.

The administration had approved the use of up to $250 million to keep the parks running. They later backtracked and repaid the costs through appropriated funds. More recent NPS guidance has moved to allow parks to dip into their recreation fees to hire more full-time staff.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club said Trump shouldn’t steal funds designated for improving parks.

“On a day intended to celebrate America’s freedom from tyranny, Donald Trump is putting on an authoritarian circus for his wealthy circle of donors -- once again showing his complete lack of understanding of who and what America is and should be,” executive director Michael Brune said in a statement. “In stealing nearly $2.5 million from the country’s people and parks, Trump is putting himself above the people, the future of the lands Americans have fought for, and our history.”

Other groups said they were tired of seeing the funds regularly used for other purposes at a time when Congress is appropriating money to deal with dilapidated and aging infrastructure at parks.

“It‘s simply exasperating to see National Parks’ maintenance accounts being raided at the same exact time as so many of us are pleading with Congress to fix the [maintenance backlog] for our Parks, Wildlife Refuges, BLM lands, and National Forests,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement, referring to the Bureau of Land Management.

Updated at 5:31 p.m.