The Secret War on the White House's Trees

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a hotspot of arboreal peril

This article is from the archive of our partner .

When conservatives accused President Obama of ruining Flag Day, March Madness and pretty much every other annual tradition Americans hold dear (and even some they don't), we laughed it off as reactionary, vaguely paranoid criticism. But there's nothing funny about what's being happening to the White House's trees since Obama took office in 2009. We don't want to say there's a secret plot to destroy the tress, or that Obama is behind it, or that he has the tacit support of the elm-hating Washington press corps. That would be irresponsible. What's not irresponsible is citing the four instances of unexplained landscaping mayhem that we know about since 2009.

  • The arboreal carnage started in June 2009, less than six months after Obama took office, when "a nearly 70-year-old" European linden on the White House North Lawn was "snapped off near its base, apparently knocked over by wind" during a summer storm. ABC's Jake Tapper and Karen Travers reported at the time that the tree "was not planted by a president to mark a special occasion or individual, so it does not have the distinction of being a commemorative tree," which meant the National Parks Service would "likely grind it up into mulch to be used on the White House grounds."
  • High winds were also blamed when the National Christmas Tree fell in February, ending 31 years of uninterrupted service on the Ellipse in President's Park. The New York Times only added to the intrigue with cryptic-in-retrospect revelations that the the Colorado blue spruce had "no known health problems" prior to falling. And a Park Service spokesman said that "the agency identified a successor [to the tree] two years ago but was not ready to reveal that tree’s location."
  • Over the past week, the arboreal warfare has entered a new, more-advanced stage. That much was clear when we saw the July Fourth pool report written by Isaac Wolf of Scripps Howard about a "WH walkway north of briefing room" being "cordoned off, on concern a tree may fall." As usual, storms in the area offered a plausible cover, but the menace was there, especially when an officer from the National Parks Service (them again!) told Wolf, "If this tree falls on you, you'll make the news." When you know about the last three years of mulchings and secret spruce succession plans, it's hard not to treat those words as a threat.
  • Based on this photo Tapper just tweeted, those words also can be read as a warning. Whatever these guys are up to, they now have the confidence to take down "ailing elms" in broad daylight on slow news days.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.