President Trump and first lady Melania Trump have elected not to attend the annual Kennedy Center Honors in December amid a political backlash among those who will be feted at the event.
The first family will not participate “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Saturday morning.
The announcement comes as three of the five honorees — television producer Norman Lear, singer Lionel Richie and dancer Carmen de Lavallade — said they would or may boycott the traditional White House reception related to the celebration. As for the other two, rapper LL Cool J had not said whether he would attend, and Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan said she would go to try to influence the president on immigration issues.
In the White House statement, Sanders said the Trumps “extend their sincerest congratulations and well wishes to all of this year's award recipients for their many accomplishments.”
The awards program will take place Dec. 3 and will be broadcast Dec. 26.
Kennedy Center board chairman David M. Rubenstein and president Deborah F. Rutter said in a statement that they respected Trump's decision and were “grateful” the spotlight would be focused on this year's honorees at the gala.
“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,” the statement read. “We are grateful for this gesture.”
In addition to the Kennedy Center gala, honorees and about 300 guests traditionally are invited to hear the president offer remarks about each of the recipients at a White House reception just before the show. That reception will no longer take place this year, the Kennedy Center said. This is the first time in the awards' history that the White House portion of the festivities has been canceled.
Since 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors have been awarded each year to recognize those in a variety of artistic fields — including dance, music, opera, theater, film and television — for “their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.”
Although both the president and first lady usually attend the ceremony, there have been years when this was not the case. Rosalynn Carter attended in the place of Jimmy Carter during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and Hillary Clinton sat in for Bill Clinton, who was attending a European conference, in 1994.
The backlash against Trump by some of this year's honorees was prompted by his handling of the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville last weekend, which ended in the death of a counterprotester.
The president belatedly condemned the hate groups that planned the event and equated counterprotesters with the white nationalists, saying “both sides” were to blame.
In a statement Thursday, de Lavallade said: “In light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our current 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.”
Trump’s initial public remarks on the violence in Charlottesville were criticized by many, including members of his own political party, for being insufficient and vague. On Monday, the president specifically called out “the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups” in unscheduled remarks at the White House, though some criticized Trump's comments as too little, too late. However, on Tuesday, Trump seemed to revert to his original sentiments in a terse exchange with reporters at what was supposed to be a news conference about infrastructure.
As a result, Trump lost support this week from a slew of business leaders and Hollywood performers who resigned from various presidential advisory groups.
On Monday, Kenneth C. Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, was the first member to quit the president’s American Manufacturing Council, citing “a matter of personal conscience” and “a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” Trump quickly rebuked him on Twitter.
Over the next few days, several more executives would follow Frazier's lead, prompting Trump to lash out at them as “grandstanders” who could easily be replaced. By Thursday, both the manufacturing council and the president's Strategy & Policy Forum had been disbanded. Though Trump announced publicly it was his decision to end both councils, those close to the process, including JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon, said the groups already had decided to disband earlier.
On Friday, the members of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities announced they were resigning en masse in a fiery letter.
“Ignoring your hateful rhetoric would have made us complicit in your words and actions …” the letter stated. “Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values. Your values are not American values. We must be better than this. We are better than this. If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office, too.”
Trump's sudden announcement that he would be skipping the Kennedy Center Honors — months before the event is scheduled to take place — is reminiscent of his decision (tweeted in February) to forgo the White House Correspondents' Association dinner (in April).
At the time, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged on ABC’s “This Week” that there had been tensions between the president and the media.
“I think it’s … kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn’t there,” Sanders told “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos in February.
Trump ended up holding a rally in Pennsylvania the night of the dinner.
“I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington swamp spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd, and much better people,” Trump told the crowd then.
Peter Marks contributed to this report.