When Billy Graham died in February 2018, President Donald Trump motorcaded to the Capitol to speak at a ceremony in the rotunda, where the evangelical leader was lying in honor. Two days later, he flew to Graham’s burial service in Charlotte.
On Monday, as Trump traveled again to the battleground state of North Carolina for a factory tour, reporters asked whether he would pay respects to the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who is lying in state at the Capitol on Monday and Tuesday. “No,” Trump said. “I won’t be going, no.”
This is part of a pattern throughout his presidency. Trump has eschewed the traditional role of the president as consoler-in-chief upon the death of people who had publicly criticized him. He has shown little graciousness toward some Capitol Hill legends after they passed away, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and John Dingell, D-Mich.
It took 14 hours for Trump to tweet condolences after Lewis died on July 17 at the age of 80 from pancreatic cancer. In the interim, he posted dozens of tweets, including attacks on his opponent Joe Biden, his former national security adviser John Bolton and his niece Mary Trump. Then he golfed with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. By the time Trump put out a two-sentence tweet, with 23 words, all four living former presidents, plus Vice President Mike Pence and dozens of lawmakers, had released statements of their own.
“Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family,” Trump wrote.
Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2020
Compare the president’s terse tweet about Lewis, the last surviving member of the Big Six who organized the 1963 March on Washington, to his quick reaction this weekend after former “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” host Regis Philbin died at 88.
“One of the greats in the history of television, Regis Philbin has passed on to even greater airwaves,” Trump wrote. “He was a fantastic person, and my friend. He kept telling me to run for President. Holds the record for ‘most live television’, and he did it well. Regis, we love you. And to Joy, his wonderful wife who he loved so much, my warmest condolences!!!”
One of the greats in the history of television, Regis Philbin has passed on to even greater airwaves, at 88. He was a fantastic person, and my friend. He kept telling me to run for President. Holds the record for “most live television”, and he did it well. Regis, we love you….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2020
The president’s messages about Lewis contained no exclamation marks, but the three broadcast networks preempted regularly scheduled programming to air live coverage of the memorials for the Democratic congressman from Georgia. The son of sharecroppers almost died at 25 when state troopers beat him viciously, cracking his skull, as he led 600 protesters in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. During 17 terms in Congress, he championed voting rights.
Pence visited the Capitol to pay tribute to his former House colleague. Former vice president Biden drove down from Delaware, with his wife, Jill, to honor Lewis. The Bidens placed their hands on the casket. Biden’s potential vice-presidential picks Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Val Demings, D-Fla., also came. Congressional Republicans were well represented, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Lawmakers from both parties gave a standing ovation after a recording was played of Lewis calling for racial justice during a 2014 commencement speech at Emory University. “Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and congressional aides quietly streamed past the flag-draped casket, which was moved to the top of the East Front steps Monday evening for the public to pay tribute,” The Washington Post’s Paul Kane, Felicia Sonmez, Meagan Flynn and Michael Brice-Saddler report. “The tributes at the Capitol came shortly after Lewis’s body made its last visit to Washington’s civil rights landmarks midday Monday, pausing at the Lincoln Memorial, where he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. The motorcade also stopped at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, and the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza outside the White House, where he made his last public appearance in early June.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump’s response to Lewis’s death, noting that he signed a proclamation lowering the flag to half-staff to recognize his civil rights work. The U.S. Flag Code, however, already specifies that flags should be flown at half-staff “on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.”
Lewis is only the second black lawmaker in American history to lay in state in the Capitol. The other was Cummings, a close friend, who died in October. Trump also skipped Cummings’s ceremony and funeral. (In addition to Graham, the president visited the Capitol in December 2018 when former president George H.W. Bush was lying in state.)
Lewis and Cummings were both outspoken Trump critics. Lewis refused to attend Trump’s inauguration in 2017 on the rationale that he was an illegitimate president because of Russian interference in the previous year’s election. (There is no evidence that any votes were changed. Lewis had also refused to attend George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001.)
Trump lashed out at the congressman, accusing him of being “all talk” with “no action or results,” a tone-deaf critique that dominated multiple news cycles. Lewis and other African Americans in Congress later declined to attend the dedication of a civil rights museum in Mississippi because Trump was scheduled to come, as well.
Last August, a few months before Cummings died, Trump appeared to poke fun at the congressman after his Baltimore house was burglarized, tweeting: “Really bad news! … Too bad!” The president later denied he was being facetious after several Republicans had criticized the message, telling reporters on his way to golf at his club in New Jersey that he was not trying to be a “wise guy.” But it had followed days of Trump relentlessly ripping Cummings, who as chairman of the House Oversight Committee was scrutinizing his conduct and issuing subpoenas to his administration. Trump called the city Cummings represented “a rodent infected mess,” said residents are “living in hell,” blamed Cummings for the city’s problems and claimed that thousands of African Americans had thanked him for spotlighting the city’s problems.
Indeed, some of their friends might have been relieved that Trump stayed away from the memorial events. Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, tweeted at Trump shortly after Lewis’s death: “While the nation mourns the passing of a national hero, please say nothing. Please don’t comment on the life of Congressman Lewis.”
Trump skipped McCain’s funeral at the request of the family of the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. The president had said during the 2016 campaign that the former prisoner of war in Vietnam was not a war hero because he got captured. Trump has continued to attack McCain since his death, especially for his decisive vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
On the night Trump was impeached by the House in December, he suggested during a rally in Michigan that Dingell was “looking up” at the crowd from hell. The president then laced into Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., his widow who now holds his seat. Dingell was the longest-serving member of the House in U.S. history and had died just months earlier. Trump did not attend his funeral.
The “looking up” riff came the week before Christmas, and the congresswoman replied on Twitter: “My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”