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The House Democratic boycotts of Donald Trump’s inauguration, explained

Washington DC Prepares For Presidential Inauguration Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Historically, Inauguration Day has served as an opportunity for politicians from both parties to come together in Washington, DC, and begin healing campaign wounds over a few drinks.

“It’s a big party day on Capitol Hill. There are normally people celebrating all through the office buildings — not to mention all of the balls that are typically planned at night,” says Ray Smock, director of the Robert Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education, and a former official Historian of the House of Representatives.

This year, there are few signs of bipartisan comity. At least 60 House Democrats in the House of Representatives have already declared they will be skipping town for Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on Friday, in what looks like a clear sign of the bitter partisan divide continuing to split the country.

Nobody appears to have kept exact numbers on how many members of the House have boycotted the inauguration, so historical comparisons are difficult. But it’s more than Smock can remember from his years as House historian.

“This is an anxious and divided country,” Smock said. “Inaugurations are supposed to be a healing opportunity. This year, it won’t be that.”

Feud with Rep. Lewis leads to wave of Dems boycotting the inauguration

So far, no Democratic senator has said he or she will not be attending. Additionally, several key Democratic politicians — including the Clintons — will be in attendance, according to CNN.

The story is very different among House Democrats. Back on January 5, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark announced that she would not be at the inauguration, saying that “discussions with hundreds of my constitutions” had led her to conclude that attendance would “contribute to the normalization of the president-elect’s divisive rhetoric.”

On the same day, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois also declared he’d be boycotting the event.

"I could not look at my wife, my daughters or my grandson in the eye if I sat there and attended as if everything that candidate Donald Trump had said about women, Latinos, African Americans, Muslims … is okay or erased from my memory," Gutierrez said in a statement to McClatchy.

Over the next two weeks, 19 House Democrats would follow Clark and Guiterrez’s leads, according to a Politico headcount. Each had his or her own reason — California Rep. Jared Huffman cited the need to “do everything I can to limit the damage” of a Trump presidency in a Facebook post, while Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva told Politico that Trump had shown “disrespect” to too many Americans for him to attend.

These House members were boycotting the inauguration as a general protest against Trump’s behavior over the course of the campaign. But the movement then really gained momentum this Sunday because of a specific catalyst — Donald Trump’s feud with civil rights icon John Lewis, a Georgia Congress member and hero among House Democrats.

Trump’s decision to insult Lewis on Twitter — as “all talk” and “no action” — turned a trickle of boycotting House Democrats into a flood. From Sunday until Tuesday, the number of boycotting House Democrats had more than doubled from 19 to 40, before increasing to 60 by Wednesday.

It’s still mostly Democrats in safe seats

The vast majority of House Democrats who are boycotting also come from seats that Hillary Clinton won comfortably, according to numbers crunched by the Daily Kos’s Stephen Wolf. As of Tuesday, only one boycotting House Democrat — Rep. Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire — also comes from a district Trump won.

Of course, that’s no coincidence. Two House Democratic aides on the Hill told me that their offices have received more than a dozen calls each from constituents asking their representatives to skip the Inauguration.

“The list is growing mostly from those representing strongly Democratic districts with a lot of people who don’t want their representative there that day,” Smock says. “It’s not hurting them at home, and may in fact be helping them.”

Additionally, at least 10 of the boycotting representatives hail from the Congressional Black Caucus. Here’s a tweet from Rep. Yvette Clark, whose district includes a broad swath of Brooklyn:

Clarke’s announcement was soon followed by that Michigan Rep. John Conyers, 77, one of the longest-serving black lawmakers in the House.

"President-elect Trump, you have the undeniable right to take issue and disagree with John Lewis' opinion about the legitimacy of the election results," said Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown, who represents the suburbs north of Washington, DC, on Facebook Monday, according to ABC. "But Mr. Trump, you need to think carefully about disparaging a civil rights icon such as John Lewis, let alone anyone exercising their freedom of expression that many of us fought for."

This has left Senate Democrats in a tough position

Trump’s fight with Lewis — and the subsequent declarations to boycott from House Democrats — has put Senate Democrats in something of an awkward spot between praising Lewis and saying they still want to attend the inauguration.

“Senator [Sherrod] Brown will attend the inauguration,” Jennifer Donohue, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Democrat, told Politico. “While he strongly condemns President-elect Trump's disparaging comments toward civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis, he wants to be there as a reminder that he will oppose efforts to roll back civil rights, raise the eligibility age for Medicare, push Ohio students into for-profit charter schools, and privatize veterans' health care.”

Similarly, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has both promised to go to the Inauguration and defended Lewis from Trump’s attacks.

‘‘What I agree with is that John Lewis is a man who has earned the right to have his view of Donald Trump’s presidency and legitimacy,’’ she said.

So there will be some sign of bipartisanship on Washington, DC, come Friday. And, as Smock says, things have been worse. In 1861, he notes, there was certainly a more dramatic boycott of Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural — seven southern states had already declared war against the Union.

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