President Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., on Wednesday. (Gerry Broome/AP)
RICHMOND — Efforts to celebrate the origins of American democracy at Jamestown are becoming embroiled in modern politics as Virginia Democrats express outrage over an invitation to President Trump to attend a commemoration later this month.
But their party leader, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), had joined with Republican lawmakers to invite Trump to the July 30 celebration at Jamestown marking the 1619 first meeting of representative government in the English colony.
Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) received invitations last year from Northam, House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and state Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City).
“Speaker Pelosi’s office declined the invitation within the last two weeks. The White House has made no announcement regarding the President’s plans,” event organizers said in a news release Saturday morning. The commemoration is being spearheaded by American Evolution, a public-private partnership established by the General Assembly.
Democrats reacted angrily on Friday night when word spread that Trump might attend the event, with some top figures vowing to boycott any ceremony attended by Trump, though they said they would otherwise participate.
“The current President does not represent the values that we would celebrate at the 400th anniversary of the oldest democratic body in the western world. We offer just three words of advice to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation: ‘Send Him Back,’ ” House of Delegates Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and other top Democrats said in a statement.
The White House on Saturday declined to comment on the invitation.
The possible appearance by Trump was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The eruption over an event that lawmakers have been touting for years as a mark of pride in Virginia’s unique history highlights what an incendiary figure Trump remains in the state. “In almost any other circumstance this invitation is almost a no-brainer. What is shows is the hyperpartisan nature of political life today,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political expert.
Democrats were fuming Saturday morning to learn that Northam had signed the invitation.
“I sure hope this is just an awful rumor. Surely there’s a better voice for such an occasion,” Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said in a tweet.
The letter to Trump, dated Aug. 16, 2018, and obtained by The Washington Post, said it was “our honor and privilege” to extend the invitation.
“Your presence and remarks on this important anniversary would be most appropriate,” the letter continued. “By lending your voice and insights, you would continue a tradition that has brought numerous prior Presidents and world leaders, including Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, to Jamestown to reflect on the significance of the place and its major milestones.”
Similar language was extended to Pelosi. Her office confirmed she received at least two invitations to the event — one from Northam and the state lawmakers, and a separate one from the state’s bipartisan congressional delegation. Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said she declined both due to an unavoidable scheduling conflict. He said she was unaware the president also was invited to attend at the time she turned it down.
Northam’s office said Saturday morning that the event’s organizers had drafted the letter more than a year ago and asked the political leaders to sign it.
“Governor Northam strongly condemns President Trump’s continued attack on immigrants and the diversity that makes Virginia and America who we are,” his spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
Northam is not scheduled to speak at the same event that Trump would potentially attend. The governor is slated to make remarks at an early-morning ceremony on July 30, while the president has been invited to something later in the day.
Yarmosky said the governor is not weighing in on whether Trump still should be invited but added that “it’s ironic the president would attend, given his recent attacks on immigrants.” The story of Jamestown, she said, highlights how immigrants built today’s America.
Former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe had slammed the potential appearance, tweeting Friday night that “racists and white nationalists have no place in the Commonwealth of Virginia” — repeating a message he sent after the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally by white supremacists.
Norment called the response by Democrats “disappointing and embarrassing.”
He noted President Theodore Roosevelt attended the 300th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding in 1907 and President George W. Bush attended the 400th in 2007.
“I consider it an honor — and a recognition of the historic importance of this commemoration — to have the President of the United States attend. I would be similarly honored were Speaker of the House Pelosi able to join us,” Norment said in an emailed statement.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) said Saturday via email that the congresswoman would not boycott the events because “it’s not about the President.” U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) said she also planned to attend.
Spokespeople for Wexton, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) each said the lawmakers had signed the invitation to Pelosi, but not a similar letter for Trump.
Warner and Kaine plan to take part in the evening portion of the celebrations, according to their offices. Warner had a scheduling conflict with the earlier session where Trump might appear, his office said. A spokesperson for Kaine said the senator will not go to the event Trump is reportedly attending because the Senate will be in session.
Several people familiar with the invitations said they were sent at the behest of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. A handful of Democratic lawmakers serve on the foundation’s board of trustees.
Norment noted that most Democrats have called on Northam to resign over a scandal involving a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page, but that lawmakers of both parties have continued to appear with him at state functions.
“Sharing the views of the leader holding an elected office is not a prerequisite for showing respect for the office,” Norment said.
Trump has been critical of Northam and his scandal in tweets.
The Jamestown commemorations have been in the works for several years and will stretch for days beyond July 30. They marks the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of the House of Burgesses, the representative government created in 1619 to oversee the needs of the struggling colony.
Dignitaries of every stripe have been invited to the events, including historian Jon Meacham — a Trump critic — as well as Republican strategist Karl Rove.
Outrage over political leaders is nothing new at Jamestown, though. In 1639 the settlers grew so fed up with the tyrannical ways of their royal governor, Sir John Harvey, that they locked him up and sent him back to England.
Laura Vozzella and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.