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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