On the other hand, the absence of Trump — under threat of impeachment and quick to take offense — is a relief to almost all involved. Not that anyone will say it out loud, but the odds that someone (an honoree, a performer, an audience member) might say or do something political at this nonpartisan evening is, frankly, uncomfortably high.
The president was booed at Nationals Park during the World Series, and the first lady was heckled by Baltimore students. Neither the Kennedy Center nor the White House wants an embarrassing scene that would make international headlines.
“In a perfect world, we would have the president of the United States in attendance,” says Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter. “It’s an important evening for the arts — not just at the Kennedy Center, but all across America.”
Unlike in previous years, the White House did not release an official announcement saying that the Trumps would not be there and did not respond to a request for comment. There was some speculation that first lady Melania Trump might show up solo — she was the surprise guest of honor at the September opening of the Reach, the center’s $250 million arts and education complex — but that doesn’t appear to be happening Sunday. Instead, the audience will include a dozen senior White House officials and 40 members of the House and Senate.
“There have always been these moments,” says Rutter. “But it’s been more under the radar, not quite so public.”
This is the latest breakdown of the carefully constructed social order that has dominated the nation’s capital since its inception. Washington is still, in many ways, a Southern city where manners and social graces are part of the unspoken rules and confrontations are considered poor form. Respect for the office of the president has always superseded respect for the officeholder, regardless of ideological or differences.
But Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and now the impeachment hearings have exposed the bitter divisions and raw nerves of both the president’s supporters and critics. Civility is no longer a given. In many ways — especially for nonprofit groups and charities that depend on ongoing, bipartisan support — it’s easier if the president doesn’t show up.
For the most part, members of the Trump administration who venture out socially have been spared nasty personal interactions, but the small talk can be, well, awkward.
What to say to presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, who used to mingle with guests at Washington parties? The president, her marriage and impeachment are definitely off limits. Conway sat at the president’s table at September’s White House state dinner for the Australian prime minister but hasn’t been seen out as much in the past few months.
This fall’s Meridian Ball, a Washington tradition supported by Republicans and Democrats for 50 years, included White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who fled rather than engage with a member of the media.
White House aides Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who once hoped to bridge the gap between the president and Washington’s establishment, have retreated from the bipartisan social scene. In October, they celebrated their 10th anniversary with a party for “close friends” at Camp David. (“Cost of the event will be totally paid for by me!” tweeted the president.) They threw an invitation-only book party for Ivanka’s brother Donald Trump Jr. at the Hay-Adams in November. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, former press secretary Sean Spicer, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, and Trump congressional supporters such as Reps. Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Kevin McCarthy and Mark Meadows were among the guests.
While many Trump supporters have confined themselves to safe spaces, Meadows is a curiosity — a fierce defender of the president by day, a regular on the city’s scene by night. Meadows declined to comment for this article.
In the past, bipartisan comity was a hallmark of Washington: Get to know political opponents as people, then find common ground. But it is hard to tweet partisan attacks and have a pleasant conversation just hours later. And now it’s almost impossible for the Tweeter-in-Chief.
“Having a president at your event is always a get,” says Philip Dufour, former social secretary to Vice President Al Gore and now head of his own event firm. “It’s pretty significant that the Trumps chose not to do anything at all. It’s sad for the Honors. It’s the biggest, most important arts event in D.C.”
It is also the most important social event. Since 1978, it has been a bipartisan tribute to artists and entertainers, led by a presidential reception at the White House, a performance at the center named for John F. Kennedy, and a star-studded dinner after the show, which is broadcast annually on CBS. The first awards went to Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein — with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter sitting next to them in the presidential box.
That tradition continued for four decades with only a few exceptions: Carter missed the 1979 show because of the Iran hostage crisis; George H.W. Bush was in Malta with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989; and Bill Clinton was en route to a conference in Budapest in 1994. The first ladies attended in their absence.
The Honors have never been entirely immune from politics, but everyone tries very hard to set it aside during the awards weekend.
Barbra Streisand, an outspoken critic of George W. Bush, agreed to accept the award in 2008. Bush gave her a hug when they met and quipped, “She’s also been known to speak her mind.”
“President Bush gave me his signature wink. . .and mouthed, ‘We showed ’em,’ ” Streisand later wrote. “For that weekend, art transcended politics.”
Trump's election was a game-changer. In 2017, three of that year's honorees — Norman Lear, Lionel Richie and Carmen de Lavallade — threatened to boycott any part that included the president. The White House announced that the Trumps would not attend nor host a reception "to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction."
The Kennedy Center responded: “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.”
Last year, the White House said the president would once again miss the ceremony, this time because of a return from the G-20 summit earlier that day. It was the first time in the history of the show that the president missed two years. Ross, the commerce secretary, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — who had also attended the Honors in 2017 — again joined incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on the list of VIPs.
The show began with a tribute to George H.W. Bush, who had just died. “I think it’s appropriate to recognize the passing of a wonderful man who dedicated his life to service and who graciously attended this event many times during his administration, laughing, applauding, singing along and even shedding a tear from right up there in the presidential box,” said host Gloria Estefan.
Cher told reporters she would have skipped the public ceremony if Trump came. “Oh, God, I couldn’t,” she said. “Someone would have to give me the little honor in the bathroom.”
The only gala Trump has attended is the annual fundraiser for Ford’s Theatre, which every president since Carter has attended in tribute to Abraham Lincoln, who was mortally shot there. The president came in 2017 and again this year.
The theater’s director, Paul Tetreault, doesn’t know precisely why Trump has observed this presidential tradition while eschewing others, but he has a guess: “We try to make his attendance as welcoming as we possibly can. . . . What we’ve learned over the years is the best way to get them to come is put on a good show, make sure they’re not insulted, and make them feel they’re there to be celebrated as well. We are there to welcome and support the office of the president of the United States.”