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CAPITOL HILL — Presidential inaugurations are usually politically unifying events in the United States, but this year a record number of lawmakers plan to publicly rebuke the president-elect when he takes the oath of office.
At least 40 Democratic members of Congress out of the 535 elected lawmakers are on the record saying they plan to boycott President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday.
Trump’s divisive political style, which delivered victory at the polls, enters a new phase when he becomes president. A new poll of American public opinion indicates Trump will take office with 51 percent of people in the U.S. disapproving of his transition, and a 40 percent favorable rating — which is lower than his three immediate predecessors.
That poll was conducted before the president-elect tweeted harsh criticism of respected lawmaker and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, who said he did not view Trump as a “legitimate president.” Trump hit back Saturday, saying the congressmen should spend more time helping his constituents than “falsely complaining about the election results.”
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
Political scientist John Hudak says the unusually contentious nature of this election, clouded by threats of foreign interference, have created an atmosphere for a boycott.
“It is not traditional for members of the opposite party to avoid a presidential inaugural — even when someone loses or there is some contention, typically the elected officials of Congress attend,” said Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Criticism Over Russian Interference
The controversy began Friday when Lewis — who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for thirty years — told NBC News he would not attend Trump’s inauguration because he does not view the “president-elect as a legitimate president.”
“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis said.
Trump struck back with two early-Saturday morning tweets criticizing the Democratic lawmaker for not spending more time “on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to…mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results.”
Lewis represents a district that includes both wealthy and poor neighborhoods of Atlanta, Georgia. He commands an unusual level of bipartisan respect on Capitol Hill, due in no small part to his role in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. As a young man, Lewis helped lead the historic March on Washington in 1963, and was beaten and jailed for protesting segregation in the southern United States.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence told CBS News on Sunday that he respects “the sacrifice” of Lewis, but added “Donald Trump has every right to defend himself.” Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming White House Chief of Staff, said Lewis’ “irresponsible” comments had started a “firestorm.”
Priebus called for outgoing President Barack Obama to “step up” and call-out the Democrats’ treatment of Trump. The White House said it would not get involved in the controversy.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who challenged Trump for the nomination in the primaries, said Monday that although he believed foreign governments had attempted to influence the election, he disagreed with Lewis’ characterization of the election results as illegitimate.
The debate over legitimacy figured heavily during Obama’s two terms, as Trump and other Republicans questioned the validity of his birth in the United States.
“That set up a breakdown in norms that now Republicans are lamenting,” Hudak noted, “But eight years ago, they were happy to applaud in order to empower certain bases within their party. So what a lot of politicians need to realize [is] that the satisfaction of immediate political goals can often have long-term unintended political consequences, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.”
In the hours after the president-elect’s tweet, the number of Democrats confirming they would not attend increased.
“After reading classified Russian hacking doc & @realdonaldtrump offensive Tweets to @repjohnlewis I will not be attending the inauguration,” Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, told CNN in an interview “the last straw” in his decision not to attend were Trump’s “ad hominem personal attacks on an icon of the civil rights movement, someone who suffered beatings and almost gave his life for his country, Rep. John Lewis.”
But Hudak said Democrats would better serve their cause by fighting for their values and convincing other members of Congress to move in their direction.
“Ultimately the refusal to attend the inauguration of President Trump is meaningless, it is an empty protest,” he said. “It is something that is not going to change the course of history or of policy or of politics.”
Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp