This post has been updated.
President Trump is no dewy-eyed debutante, but Sunday night marked his coming-out party.
The noted homebody — since coming to Washington, he has socialized only at the White House and at Trump-branded properties — attended his first big outing amid the city’s social and philanthropic crowd, the annual gala raising money for Ford’s Theatre, the historic venue where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Trump and his wife, Melania, hosted a warm-up reception before a show at the downtown theater, which marked the return of a tradition that dates back to the Carter administration. (“The President and Mrs. Trump request the pleasure of your attendance…” read the invite to the late-afternoon event). Typically, the president hosts the black-tie gathering, which draws a crowd heavy on CEOs, lawmakers and the city’s professional-partying class. So important is the exclusive mingle for donors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., that when the Obamas weren’t available for last year’s shindig, the theater canceled the whole evening.
“I am proud to continue the tradition in honor of such a historic and cherished landmark,” Melania Trump said in a statement.
The first couple — she in a drapey champagne-colored Monique Lhuillier gown; he in a tux — then attended a performance at the theater, in what was their first foray into the wilds of social Washington. At the gala, whose honorees included former NFL star Peyton Manning (who had played golf with Trump earlier in the day), the president made remarks about the terrorist attack in London.
And of the theater, he sounded a rare bipartisan note. “It’s a place where Americans of all backgrounds, from all parts, all over the world, from both parties — can you believe that, from both parties; this may be one of the few times we unite; but we’ll get there, you watch — can come together and enjoy the arts in unity and in peace,” Trump told the well-heeled crowd that included Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence, Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Though they have entertained at the White House and Mar-a-Lago, Trump has skipped the handful of premiere events that a president typically attends at least a few times during their tenure, notes Washington Life Senior Editor Kevin Chaffee, a longtime observer of the city’s galas-and-cocktails circuit. First, he snubbed the annual dinner put on by the Alfalfa Club, a group made up of corporate execs, military brass and senior pols. And another “nope” RSVP went out to the Gridiron Club, an elite group of Washington journalists — and he famously turned down the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April, something no president had done since Ronald Reagan (who only declined because he’d been shot).
Trump’s decision to attend the Ford’s gala was seen as a sign that perhaps the unpredictable commander-in-chief is prepared to engage in at least some of the social rites of the swamp he routinely derides.
“This should certainly give hope to the folks at the Kennedy Center that he and the first lady will attend the honors gala in December,” Chaffee says, mentioning another event at which the president’s attendance is a long-standing tradition.
So why this gala? Well, it’s not put on by the “FAKE NEWS” media, for one. And Trump has long expressed an affinity for Lincoln. Who could forget his praise of the Great Emancipator: “Great president,” Trump said at a GOP fundraising dinner in March. “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican, right?” Well, the members of the folks who like to call themselves “the party of Lincoln” probably did.
He even once tweeted about the theater itself (there’s a Trump tweet for everything, it seems), wondering why the 2012 biopic “Lincoln” didn’t film there.
Perhaps, mused one longtime attendee, the often-contrarian president wanted to indicate another break with the Obamas, whose decision not to host last year was seen by some as a slight. Whatever the reason, the attendee was glad to see a glimmer of engagement: “At least he’s supporting the arts.”