WASHINGTON – One by one, they passed through the grand Capitol Rotunda to pay respects to the civil rights icon.
It was a solemn display of unity as congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle offered praise for longtime Georgia Rep. John Lewis. There was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called Lewis the “conscience of the Congress"; and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who praised him as a model of courage. Vice President Mike Pence and former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, came as well.
But missing was a man whose absence spoke volumes: President Donald Trump.
“No, I won’t be going,” Trump told reporters when asked whether he planned to pay his respects to Lewis, the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda. Lewis’ body was later moved to the steps on the Capitol’s east side for a public viewing.
Trump's absence was another break in convention for a president who has broken so many norms, and one that underscored his separation from much of Washington society, along with his dismal relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill — especially members of color.
Trump had long harbored resentments toward Lewis.
A spokeswoman for Lewis, who died of pancreatic cancer, brushed off any talk of politics when asked whether the Lewis family had any communication with the White House about whether Trump should attend, calling it “irrelevant.”
“I would say that this is not a political event,” said Brenda Jones, the congressman's longtime spokeswoman. “It's our time to pay respect to a man who did a great deal for this country. And that’s all we want it to be.”
Jones added that “people can pay their respect in a lot of different ways. ... He has that right. Let him to do what he wants to do. And I'm sure that John Lewis would be supportive of it.”
The White House did not respond to questions about why the president did not attend. But Trump’s off-the-cuff declaration Monday afternoon that he wouldn't go caught some White House aides off guard, according to two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose private conversations.
While the chances of Trump going were always slim, there had been preliminary conversations in the West Wing about Trump potentially making a visit on Tuesday. Trump had previously expressed a reluctance to publicly mourn Lewis because he remained angry about the congressman’s past criticisms.
While the president’s lingering grudge played a role, White House officials also are leery of sending Trump places he isn't wanted and weren’t sure what kind of reception he would have received.
Pence, who had a personal relationship with Lewis, was seen as a safer choice. Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, like Pence a former House member, and other Cabinet members also attended.
Trump had an antagonistic relationship with Lewis. After Trump's election, Lewis called him an illegitimate president because of Russia's efforts to help him win, and the congressman boycotted Trump's 2017 inauguration as a result. Trump countered by blasting Lewis’ Atlanta majority-Black district as “falling apart" and directed him to “finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.”
In December of that year, Lewis refused to speak at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum because Trump would be there. Lewis also endorsed Biden and urged young Black voters to rally behind the former vice president.
While Trump did acknowledge Lewis' death on Twitter, it took him 14 hours to do so and his message felt more perfunctory than heartfelt, especially in contrast with his effusive tribute to television personality Regis Philbin, who died last week.
“Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family,” Trump wrote.
But for many, Trump's absence wasn't missed.
“I think it’s better if he doesn’t attend," said Phillip Estes, 53, an urban planner from Washington, D.C., who was among the hundreds who gathered to pay their respects to Lewis on Tuesday.
“He would probably just make it all about himself," Estes said.
Jay Stegall, 33, an American University graduate student originally from Lewis’ Atlanta district, echoed those sentiments as he stood with his two young sisters and his 4-year-old daughter.
“It wouldn’t have been authentic,” Stegall said. "It would just have been another photo op for him. He definitely wouldn’t have understood the meaning of the moment.”
Born to sharecroppers during Jim Crow segregation, Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers during the civil rights movement, spoke ahead of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2011 by the nation’s first Black president.
Associated Press writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.