The decision comes after several of this year’s honorees — including Norman Lear and Lionel Richie — said they would skip the traditional White House reception that coincides with the December event in protest of Trump’s political agenda and his response to the white supremacist violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Va.
“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. “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.”
The move is the latest sign of the backlash to Trump from the entertainment industry after his series of conflicting statements about the violence in Charlottesville that left a 32-year-old woman dead. After he insisted that leftist counter-protesters shared blame for the situation in Charlottesville and asserted that some participants in the rally were “fine people,” the condemnation from Hollywood as well as other sectors has been swift.
On Friday, members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned en masse in protest of his statements. So many prominent CEOs fled the White House’s business-related panels during the past week that Trump decided to disband them entirely.
The Kennedy Center Honors, now in its 40th year, are an annual fund-raising event for the non-profit performing arts organization. The prestigious award recognizes notable figures who have made significant contributions to arts. The President and first lady typically attend the glitzy Sunday night ceremony, which is broadcast later on CBS, and they have traditionally hosted a White House reception for the honorees before the event. The President and first lady also usually sit with the honorees at the ceremony itself.
In addition to Lear and Richie, this year’s recipients are Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J and dancer Carmen de Lavallade. De Lavallade told the Washington Post earlier this week that she would not attend the White House reception “in light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our current leadership is choosing to engage in.”
The 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors will be held Dec. 3. CBS will air a two-hour special on Dec. 26.
Trump’s decision to skip the event is only the latest example of how he has bucked traditions. He passed up the White House Correspondents Association dinner in April, making him the first president to miss it since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Even then, Reagan was recovering from an assassination attempt, and ended up calling into the dinner by phone.
The Kennedy Center said in a statement that another event that weekend, a dinner at the State Department on the night before the ceremony, will continue as planned.
The prospect of Trump’s participation risked making much of the coverage about the ceremony about the rift between the administration and artists, whether over some of the president’s actions or the administration’s proposal to eliminate federal arts funding.
“The Kennedy Center respects the decision made today by the office of the President of the United States,” the chairman of the Kennedy Center, David Rubenstein, and its president, Deborah Rutter, said in a statement. “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.”