President Donald Trump, after facing a chilly reception to his participation in the Kennedy Center Honors in December from several of the honorees, including Miami’s Gloria Estefan, announced Saturday that he and the first lady would not attend this year’s ceremony.
Breaking with a presidential tradition begun with President Jimmy Carter for the first Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, Trump’s pullout comes amid criticism for his positions on the arts, immigration and his reaction this week to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a white supremacists’ rally that resulted in the death of a counterprotester rammed by a car. Two state troopers also died in a helicopter crash.
This year’s honorees include singer-songwriter Estefan, TV producer Norman Lear, pop star Lionel Richie, rapper LL Cool J and dancer-choreographer Carmen de Lavallade.
“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,” the White House statement said Saturday morning. “First lady Melania Trump, along with her husband President Donald J. Trump, extend their sincerest congratulations and well wishes to all of this year’s award recipients for their many accomplishments.”
Lear and de Lavallade have both said in recent statements that while they would attend the main Washington gala on Dec. 3, they would boycott the pre-ceremony reception for honorees at the White House, which has now been canceled.
“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,” de Lavallade, 86, said in a statement announced on Thursday.
Lear, 95, who has long served as an activist for liberal causes and who worked with Gloria and Emilio Estefan on his “One Day at a Time” sitcom on Netflix, is a staunch supporter of the arts. He said he intended to skip the 40th anniversary reception because Trump “has chosen to neglect totally the arts and humanities — deliberately defund them — and that doesn’t rest pleasantly with me.”
Earlier this month he told NPR, “As an artist and a human being, I cannot celebrate this incredible honor … at a White House that has no interest in supporting the arts and humanities.”
Before Trump’s announcement Saturday, Richie, LL Cool J and Estefan had not publicly said whether they would forgo the White House reception but had weighed the possibility. Earlier in the week Richie told “The Today Show,” “I’m gonna just play it by ear. I must tell you, I’m not really happy with what’s going on right now with the controversies. They’re weekly, daily, hourly.”
When Estefan learned she had been selected for the honor — as the first Cuban American to be recognized for her contributions to the arts — she told the Herald she might have a word or two with Trump.
“I do think for me, as an immigrant, it’s incredibly important to receive this award in front of the president whose immigration policy, and some of his other policies, I don’t agree with. … But if I get an opportunity at any point in that process, for me, I’ve always been outspoken.”
In addition to the reception, honorees are seated with the president and first lady at the Kennedy Center performance, which is televised. In the 40-year history of the event, there have been only three times when a president didn’t attend. In 1994, President Bill Clinton was traveling to Budapest for a conference. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush was busy with a summit in Malta with Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter didn’t attend due to the Iran hostage crisis.
After the White House released its statement, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein and President Deborah Rutter responded:
“The Kennedy Center respects the decision made today by the office of the President of the United States. 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.”