News & Politics

Trump’s Donation to the Park Service Is Tax Deductible

From left: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a novelty check signed by President Trump, Harpers Ferry National Historic Site Superintendent Tyrone Brandyburg, White House Secretary Sean Spicer. Screenshot via YouTube.

The White House finally made good on President Trump‘s claim that he’d donate his annual salary on Monday when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dropped by to announce that Trump is sending his first-quarter earnings to the National Park Service. Zinke and Tyrone Brandyburg, the superintendent of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, pre-empted the daily press briefing to accept a $78,333 check from Trump made out to NPS, which Zinke said would be used to fund maintenance projects at historic battlefield sites.

The presentation, which had all the sincerity of a Publishers Clearing House presentation, was consistent with the Trump Administration’s love of props to settle arguments about the president’s propriety. But left unsaid by Zinke and Press Secretary Sean Spicer was that in cutting the check to NPS, Trump is getting himself another tax write-off, as contributions to federal agencies like the Park Service are deductible.

Even a modest payment to NPS is a nice gesture by the President. But it’s also a reminder of his cloudy personal finances, which remain a mystery to all but Trump and his accountants. While it is known the federal government will pay him $400,000 this year, he is intent on remaining the first president since Lyndon Johnson to not make his income-tax filings public. Questions about his business entanglements remain as open as ever—especially in light of a Pro Publica report that the trust holding his assets was altered in February to allow him to wake withdrawals at his leisure—making this small act of generosity one more thing for Trump to use as a deflection.

Sure enough, Spicer wasted no time in using Trump’s check to paper over the latest questions regarding Trump’s wealth and the amount of money the government spends on transporting him to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump, who frequently criticized former President Barack Obama‘s travel expenditures, has spent five weekends there since inauguration, at a reported cost of $3 million per trip. But when asked about this, Spicer quickly pivoted to Trump’s check.

I would note, ironically, this is a day the president just donated a significant amount of money back to the federal government,” Spicer said. “Respectfully, at what point does he do enough?”

Then there are the deleterious effects his proposed budget would have on federal protected lands. The National Park Service has a deferred maintenance backlog calculated at more than $12 billion; $78,333 is peanut dust in comparison. Of the total backlog, $229 million comes from historic military sites. (Harper’s Ferry accounts for about $4.85 million of that sum, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.)

But we shouldn’t think this donation suddenly means Trump is suddenly interested in conservation. While the White House’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year would potentially increase funding for park maintenance, it would cut the Interior Department’s overall budget by $1.5 billion, or 12 percent, including a hiring freeze that would prevent the filling of non-seasonal positions. Other cuts in government funding would also leave NPS sites vulnerable. Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program could damage more than 50 parks and historic sites throughout the six-state watershed.

In other words, don’t criticize the very wealthy president because he just made a token donation to something his policies will endanger.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.