The annual social rite of spring in Washington was less the government-meets-Hollywood-meets-the-press glitzfest of yore and more like a dressed-up Kiwanis Club dinner, albeit one televised live by CNN, MSNBC and C-SPAN.
This may have been President Trump’s intent when he turned down an invitation to the dinner, making him 0 for 2 since his inauguration last year. Trump — who distilled his signature hostility toward the news media by branding them “the enemy of the people” — arranged to be out of town while the journalists and their guests partied.
As he did last year, Trump staged a campaign-style rally, this year in Michigan, timing it to begin just as the salad was being served in the Washington Hilton ballroom. Many of the people at the Hilton read that as more than a coincidence. At one point in the speech, Trump eviscerated the media for being “very, very dishonest people.”
Fifteen presidents have attended the correspondents’ dinner since it began in 1921, which has made the event a hot ticket long before the likes of Bradley Cooper and Scarlett Johansson began showing up. The presidents-in-the-house streak ran to 36 consecutive years until Trump pooped out on the party last year. The last time Trump attended, in 2011, he sat stoically as the evening’s entertainer, Seth Meyers, dropped comic bombs on him. The prospect of it happening again seems to have deterred him from returning.
Trump did make one gesture toward press-administration glasnost, encouraging current and former members of his administration to attend (the White House announced last year that no staff employees would attend in “solidarity” with the president’s snub). And so Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus showed up. Omarosa Manigault-Newman came, too (accompanied by a fellow who tended to the train of her gown). Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders occupied a seat at the head table at the invitation of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
The celebrity cadre was small and not quite A-list: comic and Trump controversialist Kathy Griffin, Comedy Central host Jordan Klepper, Baltimore Orioles legend Brooks Robinson, Stormy Daniels attorney and ubiquitous TV presence Michael Avenatti.
The political contingent was modest as well. Among the pols in attendance were former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D), former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).
Tech luminaries? Titans of business? TV network chiefs? Not so many.
It was possible, one guest quipped, that Trump had done something he doesn’t usually do: He made an event more normal.
The sedate and earnest nature of the event was disrupted by comedian Michelle Wolf, the evening’s entertainer, who predictably went after Trump in a routine that swerved from raunchy to downright nasty. She began by saying, “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, let’s get this over with.”
Wolf vowed to get under Trump’s skin by questioning his wealth, issuing a call and response with the audience (“How broke is he?”). Her punchline included such quips as, “He’s so broke . . . he has to fly failed business class” and “he looked for foreign oil in Don Jr.’s hair.”
She was particularly harsh on the women associated with Trump. At one point, she compared Ivanka Trump to a diaper pail, and said Kellyanne Conway has “the perfect last name” because “all she does is lie.” Several cracks about Sarah Huckabee Sanders landed poorly, such as her alleged confusion over how to refer to Sanders’s full name: “Is it Sarah Sanders? Is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders? . . . What’s ‘Uncle Tom’ but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know: ‘Aunt Coulter.’ ”
Groans and cold silence followed.
In place of celebrity glitz, the correspondents’ group has tried to rebrand its party as a celebration of the First Amendment, a fundraiser for journalism scholarships and an awards ceremony. Winners of White House reporting awards this year included: the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, whom Trump disparaged in a tweet last week; a CNN team consisting of Jake Tapper, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto and Carl Bernstein; Washington Post reporter Josh Dawsey, recognized for his work at Politico; and a team from Reuters.
And maybe that’s how it should be, Tapper indicated during a pre-dinner cocktail party.
“This might be a precedent that the president is setting that is good,” he said. “We in the media have constantly for years been accused of being too cozy with power — during the Bush years, during the Obama years. Maybe no U.S. president should ever feel comfortable in a room full of White House reporters. I know that’s not why he’s taking a stand, but maybe it’s a good thing.”
The WHCA’s current president, Bloomberg News’ White House reporter Margaret Talev, called the president’s absence “unfortunate.”
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: John Allen Newman (L) and Omarosa Manigault-Newman attend the 2018 White House Correspondents' Dinner at Washington Hilton on April 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images) (Tasos Katopodis)
The scene at the White House correspondents? dinner
But she added, “Our tradition of inviting U.S. presidents, vice presidents and their staffs exists not because of the individual president but because of the office. Those who accept the invitation are signaling that they support the constitutional principles at stake and the role of the press and free speech in our republic.”
News organizations seemed to get that, quickly snapping up all of the available tables within the first week they were on sale.
That meant that more than the usual number of actual journalists got to attend, lending the affair a kind of industry reunion vibe.
“Maybe ultimately this should be more about the First Amendment, and about recognizing good journalism and about recognizing student journalists,” Tapper said. “Maybe this is not as glamorous and fun, but ultimately maybe this is what this event should be more like.”