Regarding the vast mystery that is Donald Trump, one question eclipses all others: Why is the billionaire reality star running for president?
I don’t know. You don’t know. But a handful of armchair psychoanalysts — reporters for major news organizations, no less — have decided that it all began at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where Trump was the butt of jokes by President Obama and “Saturday Night Live” comedian Seth Meyers.
Trump was so humiliated by the experience, they say, that it triggered some deep, previously hidden yearning for revenge. “That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world,” wrote the New York Times last month.
Aside from the questionable premise that the Republican front-runner has ever had an unexpressed thought, there’s the problem of speculation based on nothing but YouTube clips of the night. The only person who knows definitively when or why he decided to run is Trump.
“It’s such a false narrative,” Trump told me this week. “I had a phenomenal time. I had a great evening.”
I was there. Seated directly behind him, in fact, so that when I turned my chair to listen to the speeches, my head was precariously close to The Donald’s left ear and that golden blow-dried confection he calls his hair. In C-SPAN videos, I can be seen arching my head back rather than nuzzle his neck. Yes, I was thatclose, and the ballroom was that crowded.
So here’s a novel concept: Let’s talk about the facts of the evening. How he ended up at the dinner. Why he was in the news. And yes, let’s go to the videotape.
It helps to understand that the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner had devolved from a little-known media evening into a black-tie mash-up of the Super Bowl, the Oscars and Davos, Washington-style — thanks primarily to the presence of the president, which confers a gravitas that the evening no longer deserves, and an influx of Hollywood stars and corporate rubberneckers looking for free publicity. Now it’s a red-carpet conga line for anyone with enough power, fortune or fame to land a ticket.
Trump, the “Celebrity Apprentice” star, was a natural for the dinner: wildly popular, gregarious, huge. He came at the invitation of writer Lally Weymouth. The daughter of The Washington Post’s legendary Katharine Graham and mother of then-publisher Katharine Weymouth co-hosted the Washington Post-Newsweek reception for years and always invited her famous New York and D.C. friends as guests of the newspaper.
In 2011, however, Trump had become more than a television star. He was one of the leaders of the birther movement, a loud campaign that insisted that Obama had not been born in the United States and was not eligible for the presidency. Although the claim was discredited, Trump (publicly toying with a presidential campaign) remained unconvinced of the president’s citizenship. The story was everywhere; Hawaii released Obama’s original long-form birth certificate just days before the April 30 dinner.
Word that Trump was attending as a guest of The Post landed in the newsroom with a thud. Inviting a reality star was fine. Inviting a leading voice of the birthers was a problem for many reporters, who were concerned that it appeared as though one of America’s most respected newspapers was giving Trump (and by extension, birthers) credibility.
Trump arrived with his wife, Melania, at his side. He was gracious and engaging “as he greeted, charmed and flattered his way through the endless security line,” recalled Marcus Brauchli, The Post’s executive editor at the time. Reporters asked Trump whether he expected any jokes to come his way. Sure, he told them: “I’m fine with this stuff.”
Thus commenced the annual ritual — introductory speeches that no one listened to, aggressive schmoozing, photo ops and other strange encounters. By the time the president got up to speak, the crowd had been drinking for more than three hours.
Obama opened his speech with a recording of the Hulk Hogan theme song “Real American” and his birth certificate pulsating on the video screen. He threw one-liners at VIPs in the crowd before turning to Trump halfway through the 19-minute routine.
“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald,” Obama said. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
Then he turned serious: “But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example — no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ — at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.”
What no one in the crowd knew until the next day was that even as he joked, Obama had authorized the secret raid that took out Osama bin Laden.
Then it was Meyers’s turn. The SNL veteran launched into what was essentially a 20-minute “Weekend Update” segment, with withering jabs at all. By the time he got to Trump, he was lobbing jokes like grenades:
“Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”
“Trump owns the Miss USA Pageant, which is great for Republicans, because it will streamline their search for a vice president.”
“Donald Trump said recently he’s got a great relationship with ‘the blacks.’ Unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I bet he’s mistaken.”
With cameras aimed at him, Trump smiled at Obama’s jokes and waved at the crowd. His response to Meyers was less lighthearted: As the comedian hammered him, the billionaire didn’t crack a smile.
“The president was making jokes about me,” he recalled this week. “I was having a great time. I was so honored. I was actually so honored. And honestly, he delivered them well.” But as for Meyers: “I didn’t like his routine. His was too nasty, out of order.”
Had I been sitting anywhere else, I probably would have giggled at more of the jokes. But I felt that, personal opinion aside, Trump was a guest of The Washington Post and deserved to be treated with respect. I wasn’t going to laugh to his face. (Okay, his ear.)
At the end of the dinner, Trump was swarmed by reporters demanding to know what he thought. He told them he’d had a great time and was honored to be skewered by the president. And then he headed to the airport to jet home. Pundits took that as yet more proof that he was upset, but some VIPs stick around for the after-parties, and some beeline to their private jets — which is why, Trump says, he didn’t linger.
The next morning, the newspapers had a different version that boiled down to “Trump humiliated.” Trump says he was baffled by the headlines, because that wasn’t his take on the night. “I didn’t know that I’d be virtually the sole focus, and I guess when you’re leading in most of the polls, that tends to happen,” he told “Fox & Friends” the next morning. “I thought Seth Meyers, frankly, his delivery was not good — he’s a stutterer and he really was having a hard time.”
In retrospect, Trump broke the classic rule of political humor that says that the only response to a joke about you is to laugh harder than anyone else in the room. Whatever he was thinking, Trump looked unhappy and gave pundits a reason to pounce.
Never one to let facts get in the way of a good story, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik decided that this was the night that changed everything. “Not only, as we did not know then, was President Obama in the midst of the operation that would lead shortly to Osama bin Laden’s killing,” he wrote last fall, “it was also the night when, despite that preoccupation, the President took apart Donald Trump, plastic piece by orange part, and then refused to put him back together again.”
Based on his seat a few tables away, Gopnik was not only able to observe Trump but apparently also believed that he could read Trump’s mind. “On that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back — perhaps even pursue the Presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself,” he wrote last fall.
This narrative flies in the face of actual history: Trump mentioned running for president as far back as the 1980s, so the notion that this dinner was the single catalyst for this presidential campaign is absurd. He frequently used humor as part of his self-promotional tool kit and was the guest of honor at a 2011 Comedy Central roast just two months before the correspondents’ dinner — an X-rated drubbing that made Obama and Meyers look like weenies. “As a developer, Donald Trump has done so much damage to the New York skyline, instead of calling him ‘The Donald’ they should call him the 20th hijacker,” joked comedian Gilbert Gottfried.
Trump’s rebuttal? “What’s the difference between a wet raccoon and Donald J. Trump’s hair? A wet raccoon doesn’t have seven billion f---ing dollars in the bank.”
Trump returned to the correspondents’ dinner last year, creating a stir when he threw an arm around national security adviser Susan E. Rice and whispered into her ear as cameras flashed.
Any lingering scars from 2011?
“There are many reasons I’m running,” he told me. “But that’s not one of them.”