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Why the White House’s Arts and Humanities Committee Decided to Resign All at Once Under Trump

Update (4:55 p.m.): The White House has responded to the committee’s decision to resign, stating that “earlier this month it was decided that President Trump will not renew the Executive Order for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), which expires later this year,” according to a statement released to the New York Times. The statement continues, noting that the committee “has done good work in the past” but is currently “not a responsible way to spend American tax dollars.”

Kal Penn responded to the statement on Twitter, writing: “Lol @realDonaldTrump you can’t break up with us after we broke up with you LMFAO.”

The original article continues below.

On Friday morning, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities made the startling decision to resign from Donald Trump’s committee all at once. In a joint statement, all of its members—including author Jhumpa Lahiri, artist Chuck Close, actor Kal Penn, and more—explained in very specific terms why they no longer felt comfortable serving the president in the wake of his inflammatory remarks about the Charlottesville tragedy.

“Speaking truth to power is never easy, Mr. President . . . art is about inclusion. The humanities include a vibrant free press. You have attacked both,” the letter reads. “You released a budget which eliminates arts and culture agencies. You have threatened nuclear war while gutting diplomacy funding. . . . Your words and actions push us all further away from the freedoms we are guaranteed.”

The committee, devised in 1982 under the Ronald Reagan administration, was initially created to advise the White House on cultural issues. However, that mission has become extraordinarily difficult under the Trump administration, Penn tells Vanity Fair. Now that the group members have resigned, they will focus on protecting programs that were initially created by the committee—such as Turnaround Arts, an initiative that provides arts education to schools across the country, in partnership with the Kennedy Center, as well as Americans for the Arts, which provides arts funding to numerous schools. In addition, members will also continue to uphold the cultural exchange program with Cuba that began in 2016.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Penn explains how the group decided to resign together and how it plans to resist the current administration. (Representatives for the White House have not yet responded to _V.F.’_s request for comment, but we will update if and once they do.)

Vanity Fair: This is a really extraordinary measure, but I think there are some people who might be surprised this didn’t happen earlier. Why now?

Kal Penn: The president’s committee has twice the members that you see on the letter. Half of them made the decision to resign just before the inauguration. The rest of us felt that because we were appointed to a committee that does not term out—our terms don’t automatically expire with the changing administration—that our roles are nonpartisan. We’re there to serve the existing programs that were created in terms of arts education and cultural diplomacy. And that would still be an opportunity to serve the American people. Over time, there obviously were things that bothered us.

It became clear that the government became inoperative under this particular presidency. A lot of the work and the agencies have been frozen. There’s a big waste of taxpayer dollars. We had hope, but the president made comments that quite literally were in support of the domestic terrorists.

It’s one thing to say you want to serve the programs you were appointed to serve, regardless of politics, but after a certain point . . . we just don’t want our names attached to this in any way.

What was the process of deciding to resign as a group?

It was an e-mail chain. . . . There were a lot of text chains (laughs). A few of us were thinking of resigning; we were just curious to check in with everybody else to see if everybody was feeling the same way. It turned out that we all did.

I think we all felt very strongly that we’re not resigning for a news cycle [or] anything like that. This is a particularly disturbing moment in American history. It has to be the kind of letter that we’re O.K. with showing our grandkids. These committees exist to advise the White House on cultural issues, and it is the role of artists to spark conversation.

The letter ends on a line saying that if Trump doesn’t raise his values, he should resign as well. Whose idea was it to include that line, and was there any hesitation?

I don’t think there was hesitation. I would have to go back on the emails to see which individuals actually suggested it, but no . . . none of this behavior is presidential. We did take an oath of office before we became part of the committee, so we just felt that it was in the realm of what we were asked to do, to also say that.

The first letter of each paragraph spells “Resist.” Whose idea was that?

We are artists, and I feel like that almost speaks for itself in a way. I had floated it to a few members . . . this is a nice little nod to a lot of folks who are curious about those of us who still continued to serve on the board.

Melania Trump is the honorary chair of this committee. What was it like, trying to actually interact with this presidency in these last few months?

We found it incredibly difficult, and it seems that that was on purpose. We had not, at least as far as I know, heard from the White House directly, which is a big departure from the previous White House, and, from what I understand, the Bush White House as well. . . . There was no support and no interaction with the White House.

I guess that kind of voids my next question: you just resigned, but has anyone in the White House reached out since you did?

No, but I imagine when you resign, I don’t think you usually get a response (laughs). Our letter was pretty final.

It’s surprising that there was no effort made on behalf of the First Lady’s office or anyone in the White House to reach out to the President’s Committee at some point, but in a way, it’s also not surprising. You look at the president’s fiscal 2018 budget: under the National Endowment for the Arts, there’s zero dollars. Under the National Endowment for the Humanities, there’s zero dollars. You can have someone like Ivanka Trump talk all she wants about the importance of programs for young people, but when she is a senior adviser and her administration’s budget has zero dollars next to those things, it’s not surprising that the First Lady isn’t reaching out.

Are you anticipating a Trump tweet about this?

We have no idea what’s important to him and what’s not, so who knows. We decided to craft a letter based on the very serious nature of what’s happening right now. We did not want to be complicit in any way, shape, or form. I think our letter speaks for itself.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Full ScreenPhotos:Transgender Troops React to Trump’s Ban

Brynn Tannehill

Rank/branch of military: Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy. In the reserves until July 1, 2017
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Proudest moment: “All the years of training and dedication came together for me in those moments where I was there for my shipmates when they needed me the most. They survived because we were there.”
Biggest misconception: “The idea that it’s too expensive to retain transgender service members is laughable to me. It costs more to replace two highly trained transgender service members than to provide health care for every last one of them.”

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.

__Allyson Robinson__

Allyson Robinson

Rank/branch of military: Captain, U.S. Army
Hometown: Scranton, PA
Proudest moment: “Taking command of my first platoon after I graduated from West Point. Leading American soldiers is the single greatest honor I’ve ever received.”
Biggest misconception: “People often assume I joined the Army to ‘make a man out of myself.’ I didn’t. I joined the Army out of a sense of gratitude for all I’d been given by this country.”

Photo: Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

__Kristin Beck__

Kristin Beck

Rank/branch of military: Senior Chief, U.S. Navy SEALs
Hometown: Wellsville, NY
Proudest moment: “I saved the life of an Afghanistan man in the middle of chaos. I also saw him later on and was able to have tea with him.”
Biggest misconception: The idea that this is a new issue. “Transgender people have been serving since the Revolutionary war, and most of us don’t cost a thing.”

Photo: Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

__Blake Dremann__

Blake Dremann

Rank/branch of military: Active Duty Navy Lieutenant Commander
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Proudest moment: “The day I qualified in submarines and was pinned with my dolphins.”
Biggest misconception: “We are obsessed with transitioning and cannot function or do our jobs. Many transgender service members are at the top of their game and they only get better when they are allowed to transition.”

Photo: Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

__Laila Ireland__

Laila Ireland

Rank/branch of military: Retired Army Corporal, worked as a Health-care Management Administration Specialist
Hometown: Waipahu, HI
What is your proudest moment in the service? “Knowing that the solider was going to be able to go home to their family was and is always the most satisfying part of my career.”
What is the biggest misconception you’d like to correct? “The most common one in my opinion is that transgender people are incapable of fulfilling a duty because they are mentally unstable. In order to serve in these roles, you have to be mentally sound.”

Photo: Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

__Jacob Eleazer__

Jacob Eleazer

Rank/branch of military: Captain, Kentucky National Guard. Currently serving in the 198th Military Police Battalion as the Senior Human Resources Officer
Hometown: Lexington, KY
Proudest moment: “Being selected as T.A.C. (Teach, Assess, Counsel) officer of the year. It meant a lot to me to know that both my soldiers and command thought so well of my work, even as the Army was processing me for involuntary discharge due to being transgender.”
Biggest misconception: “That being transgender is the most important part of who we are. I am proud to be a transgender man, but when it comes down to it, I am a commissioned officer in the United States Army.”

Photo: Photograph by Jacob Roberts.

__Logan Ireland__

Logan Ireland

Rank/branch of military: Active Duty Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force
Hometown: Flower Mound, TX
Proudest moment: “To be fortunate enough to see the policy change for transgender military members like myself. To see my brothers and sisters no longer have to serve in silence is a humbling experience.”
Biggest misconception: “We only want to serve in the military to have our transitions paid for. At no point is my military service about me; it’s about those who came before me.”

Photo: Photographed by Matthew Mahon.

<strong>Brynn Tannehill</strong>

Brynn Tannehill

Rank/branch of military: Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy. In the reserves until July 1, 2017
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Proudest moment: “All the years of training and dedication came together for me in those moments where I was there for my shipmates when they needed me the most. They survived because we were there.”
Biggest misconception: “The idea that it’s too expensive to retain transgender service members is laughable to me. It costs more to replace two highly trained transgender service members than to provide health care for every last one of them.”

Photograph by Justin Bishop.

<strong>Allyson Robinson</strong>

Allyson Robinson

Rank/branch of military: Captain, U.S. Army
Hometown: Scranton, PA
Proudest moment: “Taking command of my first platoon after I graduated from West Point. Leading American soldiers is the single greatest honor I’ve ever received.”
Biggest misconception: “People often assume I joined the Army to ‘make a man out of myself.’ I didn’t. I joined the Army out of a sense of gratitude for all I’d been given by this country.”

Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

<strong>Kristin Beck</strong>

Kristin Beck

Rank/branch of military: Senior Chief, U.S. Navy SEALs
Hometown: Wellsville, NY
Proudest moment: “I saved the life of an Afghanistan man in the middle of chaos. I also saw him later on and was able to have tea with him.”
Biggest misconception: The idea that this is a new issue. “Transgender people have been serving since the Revolutionary war, and most of us don’t cost a thing.”

Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

<strong>Blake Dremann</strong>

Blake Dremann

Rank/branch of military: Active Duty Navy Lieutenant Commander
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Proudest moment: “The day I qualified in submarines and was pinned with my dolphins.”
Biggest misconception: “We are obsessed with transitioning and cannot function or do our jobs. Many transgender service members are at the top of their game and they only get better when they are allowed to transition.”

Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

<strong>Jennifer Long</strong>

Jennifer Long

Rank/branch of military: Army Sergeant Major, retired in 2012
Hometown: Jersey City, NJ
Proudest moment: “My service in Afghanistan in 2010–2011. I was awarded the French National Defense Medal, the first American to receive that medal since World War II.”
Biggest misconception: “Expensive, complicated surgeries would make them non-deployable or [reduce their] effectiveness.”

Photograph by Justin Bishop.

<strong>Sheri Swokowski</strong>

Sheri Swokowski

Rank/branch of military: Colonel, U.S. Army. Retired December 4, 2004, after 35 years of service.
Hometown: Manitowoc, WI
Proudest moment: “I was the first woman to (legitimately) wear an infantry uniform after my DD 214 was changed to reflect my authenticity. I wore that uniform at [a] Pentagon Pride Event and [the] White House Pride month reception in June 2015.”
Biggest misconception: “Some people, particularly the older generation, believe trans individuals are mentally ill. Being transgender is a medical condition, no different than someone suffering from diabetes or heart disease. All medical conditions are deserving of treatment.”

Photograph by Kevin Miyazaki.

<strong>Jennifer Peace</strong>

Jennifer Peace

Rank/branch of military: Active Duty Army Soldier, Intelligence Officer
Hometown: Houston, TX
Proudest moment: “The day I took command of a company. It was something I had given up hope on ever doing after deciding to transition, assuming that my career would be over.”
Biggest misconception: “I think what it all comes down to is this stereotype people have of who trans people are. Once you work with someone and know someone personally, it breaks those stereotypes down.”

Photograph by Robbie McClaran.

<strong>Laila Ireland</strong>

Laila Ireland

Rank/branch of military: Retired Army Corporal, worked as a Health-care Management Administration Specialist
Hometown: Waipahu, HI
What is your proudest moment in the service? “Knowing that the solider was going to be able to go home to their family was and is always the most satisfying part of my career.”
What is the biggest misconception you’d like to correct? “The most common one in my opinion is that transgender people are incapable of fulfilling a duty because they are mentally unstable. In order to serve in these roles, you have to be mentally sound.”

Photograph by T.J. Kirkpatrick.

<strong>Jacob Eleazer</strong>

Jacob Eleazer

Rank/branch of military: Captain, Kentucky National Guard. Currently serving in the 198th Military Police Battalion as the Senior Human Resources Officer
Hometown: Lexington, KY
Proudest moment: “Being selected as T.A.C. (Teach, Assess, Counsel) officer of the year. It meant a lot to me to know that both my soldiers and command thought so well of my work, even as the Army was processing me for involuntary discharge due to being transgender.”
Biggest misconception: “That being transgender is the most important part of who we are. I am proud to be a transgender man, but when it comes down to it, I am a commissioned officer in the United States Army.”

Photograph by Jacob Roberts.

<strong>Logan Ireland</strong>

Logan Ireland

Rank/branch of military: Active Duty Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force
Hometown: Flower Mound, TX
Proudest moment: “To be fortunate enough to see the policy change for transgender military members like myself. To see my brothers and sisters no longer have to serve in silence is a humbling experience.”
Biggest misconception: “We only want to serve in the military to have our transitions paid for. At no point is my military service about me; it’s about those who came before me.”

Photographed by Matthew Mahon.


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