WASHINGTON – Acknowledging that he has become a “political distraction,” President Donald Trump has decided to skip the festivities surrounding the annual Kennedy Center Honors arts awards later this year, the White House announced Saturday amid the continuing fallout over Trump’s stance on last weekend’s white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump reached their decision Friday, a White House official said, the same day that the entire membership of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned in protest over Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville.
Trump has blamed “both sides” for the Aug. 12 violence that left an anti-racism activist dead.
The Kennedy Center said it respected Trump’s decision and the show will go on.
Presidents traditionally host a light-hearted and oftentimes humorous gathering for the honorees at the White House before everyone shifts to the performing arts center for the ceremony, which is later broadcast nationally.
Trump long has had a contentious relationship with the arts world and some of those whom the Kennedy Center is recognizing for lifetime achievement in their fields had already made clear they would boycott a White House reception presided over by Trump.
His decision capped a week in which the blowback against his remarks was sharp and swift.
Elected and former elected officials in both parties urged Trump to more forcefully denounce the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, while others openly questioned his competence and moral leadership.
Corporate titans whom Trump enjoyed schmoozing with at the White House fled advisory boards they had agreed to serve on, while uniformed leaders of the armed services denounced racism and hatred without naming their commander in chief.
One of Trump’s evangelical advisers also stepped down, and the number of major charities that are canceling fundraisers planned for Trump’s property in Palm Beach, Florida, has been rising.
“The president and first lady have decided not to participate in this year’s activities to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. Sanders said the Trumps offer their “sincerest congratulations and well wishes to all of this year’s award recipients for their many accomplishments.”
Television writer and producer Norman Lear, among the five honorees announced earlier this month, had questioned whether Trump would want to attend the gala “given his indifference or worse regarding the arts and humanities.” Trump has recommended eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Lear was unavailable for comment Saturday, said a representative who referred to a tweet he posted following Trump’s comments earlier in the week. “I fought Nazis in World War II. They aren’t “very fine people,” @realDonaldTrump. #Charlottesville,” Lear said.
Dancer Carmen de Lavallade said on her website Thursday that she was honored to be recognized, but would not go to the White House.
“In light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our existing leadership is choosing to engage in, and in keeping with the principles that I and so many others have fought for, I will be declining the invitation to attend the reception at the White House,” she said.
Singer Gloria Estefan had said she would set her personal politics aside to accept the honor, now in its 40th year. She said the image of a Cuban immigrant like herself being honored is important when Latino immigrants in particular have “taken a beating in the recent past.” Estefan once hosted a Democratic fundraiser attended by President Barack Obama. She said she and her husband, Emilio, are not affiliated with a political party.
Representatives for the remaining honorees – hip-hop artist LL Cool J, who had not yet said whether he would show up at the White House, and singer Lionel Richie, who described himself as a maybe – did not respond to requests for comment.
Some celebrities, including musician Ted Nugent and actor James Woods, supported Trump.
“Wise solution. Recipients wanted to boycott; @POTUS deferred and graciously withdrew. Problem solved. A perfect metaphor. #DISENGAGE,” Woods tweeted about the arts awards.
Nugent said during an appearance on Fox News Channel this week that Trump was not unambiguous in his remarks.
“We condemn all violence. That’s what President Trump said. And all lives matter. If you don’t agree with that, you’re a racist,” he said.
Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein and President Deborah F. Rutter said they respected Trump’s decision.
“In choosing not to participate in this year’s Honors activities, the administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the Honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees. We are grateful for this gesture,” they said in a joint statement.
“This is the first time you’ve had a president who is not attending because he did not want to be embarrassed by people not showing up for their honors,” said Steven J. Ross, a University of Southern California history professor who has written books about Hollywood and politics.
Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton missed the gala due to major issues that demanded their time, Ross said.
The honorees will be celebrated at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 3 with performances and tributes by top entertainers. A traditional State Department reception and awards dinner on Dec. 2 will be held as planned.
The five honorees are expected at both events, Rubenstein and Rutter said.
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