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Embattled Trumps to skip top art awards
US President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, New Jersey, on August 18, 2017, following travel for meetings at Camp David in Maryland, as he returns to Bedminster, New Jersey to continue his vacation. SAUL LOEB / AFP.

by Brian Knowlton

WASHINGTON (AFP).- Donald and Melania Trump will skip one of America's top art awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, the White House announced Saturday in the latest sign of the president's growing isolation after one of the most disastrous weeks of his young administration.

The decision -- which came after several honorees said they would boycott a White House reception for the awards -- was intended to allow the events to go ahead without "political distraction," Trump's spokeswoman said.

But the decision came at a moment of extreme distraction, as Trump faced a torrent of criticism over his reaction to the violent protests last week in Virginia, and as white nationalists were gathering Saturday for a new "free speech" rally in Boston, with large numbers of counterprotesters expected amid fears of fresh violence.

The exceptionally turbulent week was capped by Trump's firing Friday of top strategist Steve Bannon, a man known as a political scrapper closely associated with the white nationalism of the "alt-right" movement.

In sharp contrast, the annual Kennedy Center honors ceremony is a posh and generally non-political affair -- a highlight of the Washington social year, with tuxedo- and gown-wearing guests feting icons of American culture -- and with the president and First Lady, in prominent balcony seats, nearly always a focus of attention.

That made the Trumps' decision all the more surprising, if not unprecedented. The president also stayed away from the annual White House correspondents' dinner in April, with then-press secretary Sean Spicer citing the president's strained relations with the press.

'Looking for confrontation'
On Saturday, Kennedy Center President David Rubenstein and President Deborah Rutter said they were "grateful for this gesture" by the Trumps, adding in a statement: "The administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the Honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees."

Some of the honorees have been sharply critical of Trump, particularly after he said Tuesday that "both sides" were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia during a rally by neo-Nazis and white supremacists -- a stance that has sent business leaders and political allies of the president scurrying for cover.

The statements Saturday came just hours before the scheduled start of a new "free speech" protest, in Boston. In remarks throughout the week, state and local officials there emphasized that there was no place for hatred and violence in that historic city.

But white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups were said to have been energized by the violent protest in Charlottesville -- and what they considered Trump's supportive response.

"I just think the rhetoric has really brought this to a different level and that's what we're worried about," Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told reporters on Friday.

"I've never seen so many people looking, almost looking for confrontation. You know, we gotta knock it down."

'Street fighters'
The Boston rally is scheduled from noon to 2 pm local time in the Boston Common, with speakers set to include Kyle Chapman, a member of what the anti-hate group Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a "new Alt-Right group of street fighters."

But organizers said they were committed to staging a peaceful rally.

Two counterprotests were set to start shortly before the main event -- thousands of people had gathered by late morning -- and were set to come together on the Common.

A large police presence was expected. Trucks and concrete barriers were used to block vehicle access to the area.

Trump's decision, meanwhile, to skip the Kennedy Center affair underscored his fraught relationship with the American art world and, more broadly, with mainstream Washington.

He angered many in the art world when he pushed for the complete end of federal support for public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts in his budget outline in March.

Some of this year's Kennedy Center honorees have made clear their disapproval of the president's stances on the arts, and on the Charlottesville controversy.

Television writer and producer Norman Lear, a 95-year-old World War II veteran whose sitcoms like "The Jeffersons" and "All in the Family" brought social issues into American living rooms, said shortly after being named an honoree that he would not attend the White House reception.

"It is more important now than ever that we stand up for artists, for artistic expression, and for the valiant fight that artists fight," Lear said.

Dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade on Thursday cited "the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our existing leadership is choosing to engage in" for declining the invitation to a White House reception.

Also being honored are rapper LL Cool J, Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan and singer Lionel Richie.

The Kennedy awards ceremony December 3 will be the 40th -- and the first of the Trump era.

© Agence France-Presse

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