The Maryland Republican Party received a “special use” permit allowing Vice President Mike Pence to use Baltimore’s historic Fort McHenry — a National Park Service property — as a backdrop for his political address next week at the Republican National Convention.
With a replica of the Star-Spangled Banner flying, Pence will deliver a speech Wednesday night in an outdoor area of the popular tourist site on the Patapsco River, according to a copy of the National Park Service permit obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
While details of the speech and fort setup have not yet been provided, the permit suggests there will be an audience. It calls for construction of a stage, shuttle service from an off-site location, and golf carts to help spectators get around.
The coronavirus pandemic has prevented both parties from hosting the usual mass gatherings of convention delegates during a presidential election year. The just-ended Democratic National Convention featured many speeches with a lone speaker and no audience.
The fort is designated a National Monument and Historic Shrine overseen by the National Park Service. It is where 1,000 U.S. soldiers withstood a British bombardment in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Democrats have said President Donald Trump and Pence might be flouting federal law in delivering partisan speeches on federal properties. Trump is to formally accept the Republican nomination for a second term from the White House on Thursday.
“I find it deeply troubling that the Trump administration is not more sensitive to the use of public facilities for private, political purposes,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.
The president and vice president are exempt from the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in political activity while at work. People who work for them must abide by the act.
National Park Service spokesperson Stephanie Roulett said Friday that while there are restrictions on agency staff’s on-the-job political activity, workers may appear at political events to provide logistical support and protect visitors and federal properties from harm.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Norman Eisen, who was an adviser to Democratic former President Barack Obama on ethics and government reform, said Trump and Pence may run afoul of a law barring the coercion of federal employees to engage in political activity.
“Anytime the president or vice president does anything, a vast array of federal employees are involved,” said Eisen, who was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment and trial of Trump.
At national parks, he said the most “obvious” example is that “the park rangers have to be there. They are going to be forced to stand there with a straight face. We do not force federal employees to be props. It is repugnant."
But Roulett said national parks are often used “as backdrops for political events.” The special use permit granted by the park service for Fort McHenry is marked “First Amendment Rights.” Preparations at the fort for Pence’s speech began on Wednesday.
By law, the park service “has established places in parks where First Amendment activities can be accommodated. These areas are visible to the general visiting public without interfering with the public’s enjoyment of the park,” according to the park service’s website. It said there are no fees or costs for the activities. The permit said fees such as cost recovery, liability insurance, performance bond and location fee were not required.
Baltimore indoor and outdoor gatherings are currently restricted to minimize the spread of coronavirus.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said through a spokesman that he hopes Pence adheres to local laws when he comes for his convention speech.
”While we are in the midst of a pandemic in Baltimore City, he hopes the vice president would take that into consideration and adhere to the law of Baltimore City, which caps outdoor gatherings at 25 people,” said James Bentley, the Democratic mayor’s spokesman.
It’s not clear who or how many people will attend Pence’s address.
Corine Frank, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, was listed as the point person on the permit. She did not return messages left Friday night.