The email was cordial, warm and deferential.
"Thank you so much for the extremely kind invitation to play at your inauguration," wrote one of President Donald Trump's favourite musicians, Sir Elton John. "I have given it at lot of thought, and as a British National I don't feel that it's appropriate for me to play at the inauguration of an American President. Please accept my apologies."
Trump had been hoping John would croon him into the presidency. He had gone so far as to tell people it was happening even though John had not yet agreed to such a performance.
The organisers of Trump's inauguration had been struggling to find notable musicians to perform at the festivities, often considered a high honour. Barack Obama had been able to draw the likes of Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé.
John, whom Trump considered something of a friend, joined other celebrities in declining the opportunity to perform.
But for Trump, the rejection from John was probably particularly tough to swallow. In multiple books, Trump had praised John's talent and drive. In 2005, Trump had arranged for John to perform at his third wedding, to Melania Knauss. Eleven years later, John sent his carefully worded email passing on an encore performance, this time at Trump's inauguration.
Tiny Dancer, one of John's most well-known songs, still rings out at the president's rallies, part of a playlist Trump personally selects. The president nicknamed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "Little Rocket Man," an homage to the song by John and a reference to the strongman's missile tests. When the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, went to a meeting with Kim, he came bearing an Elton John record.
Still, John's music has become the soundtrack not just of the Trump rallies but of the Trump presidency itself — a persistent aural reminder of the president's interest in showmanship and celebrity and his belief that he is never being given proper credit by the news media for what he views as his successes.
While previous presidents have generally measured their victories against those of their predecessors, Trump prefers comparing himself against an international superstar known for his flashy style.
Trump was giddy when his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, told the crowd at a Manchester, New Hampshire, rally last month that the attendance numbers for the event had bested John's ticket sales in the same venue.
"Great news! Tonight, we broke the all-time attendance record previously held by Elton John at #SNHUArena in Manchester, New Hampshire!" Trump tweeted.
In the days that followed, Trump repeatedly asked aides if his triumph over John was capturing headlines. It wasn't. Although aides were not surprised as they did not view the accomplishment as a major story, to the president, it represented an emotional wound — his belief that he is perpetually demeaned and never receives his due, according to people close to him.
It was not the first time that Trump had focused on beating John's attendance records. In Montana last summer, Trump asserted he had broken John's record at the arena where he appeared — and again complained that he was not getting credit.
"I have broken more Elton John records. He seems to have a lot of records," Trump said. "And I, by the way, I don't have a musical instrument. I don't have a guitar or an organ. No organ. Elton has an organ. And lots of other people helping. No, we've broken a lot of records. We've broken virtually every record."
Senator Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in an interview last year that Trump had pressed him on how big John's crowd had been at a concert in Fargo — and was laser-focused on beating those numbers.
During the campaign in 2016, Trump would blast John's music aboard his private airplane so loudly that people could not sleep, according to former campaign aides. And at the time, Trump's advisers pointed to his public celebration of John's civil union with his partner, David Furnish, in 2005, as evidence of his tolerance toward gay rights. (That support, expressed on Trump's now-defunct blog, has been deleted, and the president's administration has established a track record of repeatedly curtailing rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, targeting transgender people in particular).
Still, when the president was elected, he knew exactly whom he wanted to perform at his inauguration. He informed his friend Anthony Scaramucci that John would play, without waiting for an actual response from the singer, according to Scaramucci.
"This will be the first American president in US history that enters the White House with a pro-gay-rights stance," Scaramucci said on television at the time. "Elton John is going to be doing our concert on the mall for the inauguration."
John's spokeswoman, Fran Curtis, quickly made clear that that was "incorrect."
A day later, John sent an email, through John's personal assistant, to an official on the inaugural committee.
The musician said that he appreciated that Democrats and Republicans had worked on ending HIV and AIDS, and that he hoped to work with the new president on the issue.
"It's been my duty be a part of this battle, and I won't stop fighting the war against AIDS until we have won," he wrote.
Trump has repeatedly focused on ending AIDS in his public statements, announcing a plan to end the epidemic by 2030 in his State of the Union address this year. Curtis did not immediately respond to a question about whether Trump and John have continued talking about AIDS since the inauguration.
Asked by The New York Times about the inauguration email from the singer, John's husband, Furnish, initially denied it existed, saying, "No correspondence sent to President-elect Trump with an apology and no offer was ever made to perform at a UK state dinner in the US" When told of the details, which were provided by two people who had seen it, he quickly said it was so far back that no one immediately remembered it and provided a copy to a reporter.
John has made clear since then that he wants daylight between himself and Trump's politics. Yet in the final sentences of his letter, John suggested something of a compromise.
"I was honoured to perform at a White House State Dinner for the UK during the Clinton presidency and I would be delighted to do the same for you if the opportunity arises," John wrote. "I also want to wish you every success with your presidency. I love America deeply, a country that has always welcomed me and my music with kind, tolerant and open arms."
So far, no such dinner has been scheduled.
Written by: Maggie Haberman
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES