The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump was mocked at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner. He insists it’s not why he ran.

Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth, Donald Trump and Melania Trump at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner. (Clint Spaulding/Sipa Press/AP)

If some media and political pundits are to be believed, President Trump sits in the White House today as the result of several hours one warm April evening seven years ago: the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner.

That year, at the invitation of none other than The Washington Post, Trump — then best known for being the host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” — attended the event, an annual gathering of journalists that typically has been headlined by the sitting president. Unlike Saturday evening, when the president made it a point to skip the dinner and later lambaste it on Twitter, at the time Trump seemed happy to be in the presence of so many from the media.

Trump was no ordinary celebrity guest in 2011. In addition to being a reality-TV fixture, he was then one of the most vocal opponents of President Barack Obama, leading the “birther” movement that had demanded Obama release his birth certificate. Trump had also been hinting, not for the first time, that he might launch his own bid for the presidency.

All of those things coalesced to make Trump the target of a large swath of jokes at the 2011 dinner.

First came Obama, who roasted Trump for a full five minutes that evening, seeming to delight in directing zingers at the man who had questioned whether he was a legitimate president. (Unknown to the world then, the president was also, at the same time, authorizing the raid that would kill Osama bin Laden.)

“No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald,” Obama said. “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?”

President Obama and comedian Seth Meyers skewered Donald Trump at the 2011 White House correspondents' dinner. From the birther movement to his potential run for president, here's a look back at some of their jabs. (Video: The Washington Post)

Obama also joked about Trump’s experience to lead the nation.

“All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” he said. “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 Little John or Meatloaf — you fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.”

But it was comedian Seth Meyers, the host of that year’s dinner, who really laid into Trump. For several minutes, Meyers lobbed one joke after another at Trump’s expense, even wedging in a prescient imitation of Trump hosting a White House news conference.

“Gary Busey said recently that Donald Trump would make an excellent president. Of course, he said the same thing about an old, rusty bird cage he found.”
“Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed that he was running as a joke.”
“Donald Trump owns the Miss USA pageant, which is great for Republicans because it will streamline their search for a vice president.”

Video from the dinner would later show Trump seemingly frozen in the audience, lips pursed, staring straight ahead with his face set into something between a squint and a hard scowl, as Meyers continued.

After Trump announced his candidacy, several publications seized upon the 2011 dinner as the moment in which his political ambitions crystallized.

“That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world,” the New York Times wrote in 2016. “And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.”

At the White House correspondents’ dinner, the buzz was reduced to a snore — until Michelle Wolf showed up

The National Review, in a similar search for what might have motivated Trump to run, published a piece titled “How the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Gave Us the Trump Campaign.” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote in September 2015 that he had been seated a few tables away from Trump in 2011.

“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,” Gopnik wrote.

That said, The Post’s Roxanne Roberts has systematically dismantled the theory that Trump was spurred to run specifically because of the 2011 correspondents’ dinner, disastrous as it may have been for him. For one, his presidential ambitions apparently started decades earlier.

“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,” she wrote in April 2016.

Roberts also pointed out that Trump had been the star of a 2011 Comedy Central roast just two months earlier, “an X-rated drubbing that made Obama and Meyers look like weenies.”

For what it’s worth, Trump has denied that the 2011 dinner had anything to do with his eventual campaign. He told Roberts in 2016 that he had a “phenomenal time” at the event, though he thought Meyers’s routine was “too nasty, out of order.”

“There are many reasons I’m running,” Trump told Roberts. “But that’s not one of them.”

That did not stop many pundits from pointing to the 2011 dinner as the tipping point for Trump’s political ambitions — including Meyers himself. Last year, the late-night comedian made an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” where the two tussled, half-jokingly, about who should take the “credit” for spurring Trump’s presidency.

Fallon brought up Trump’s appearance on his show in September 2016, in which the host had playfully ruffled the hair of the then-presidential candidate. Afterward, Fallon was roundly criticized for going too easy on Trump — and, some said, for legitimizing a candidate who had run a divisive, controversial campaign.

Still, Meyers joked to his former “Saturday Night Live” cast mate that he had been miffed by the attention Fallon got after that interview.

“I know after that happened, you took some heat,” Meyers told Fallon. “People said you are the reason he won. And I’m so insulted about that because I am the reason he won.”

Meyers added: “I made fun of him in 2011. That’s the night he decided to run. I kicked the hornet’s nest. You just rubbed — you rubbed the hornet’s head. … Again, it’s not the outcome I wanted, but it’s history.”

“Yeah, you just want some respect,” Fallon told Meyers, to laughter.

“I got a man elected president,” Meyers said. “I want my points.”

Ted Kennedy spoke of a family curse after Chappaquiddick. He had good reason.

After Trump’s inauguration, there were calls to boycott the White House correspondents’ dinner amid his increasingly fraught relationship with the news media. Throughout his campaign, he regularly lashed out at the press, describing news outlets as being “dishonest” and at one point barring The Post from covering his events. After his election, he accused certain media outlets of publishing “fake news.” The tense relationship reached a boil when Trump called the media “the enemy of the American People.”

Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Bloomberg canceled their parties associated with the event last year, though the decisions may have been percolating for some time.

“To think that next spring Trump could be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner as the commander in chief renders one almost speechless,” Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter wrote in an issue of the magazine that published shortly before Election Day.

When Trump abruptly announced last year that he would not attend the 2017 dinner, he offered no explanation. Then-White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged on ABC’s “This Week” that there had been tensions between the president and the media.

“I think it’s … kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn’t there,” Sanders told host George Stephanopoulos last year.

Trump would skip the dinner to instead “spend the night focused on what he can do to help better America,” Sanders said.

“You know, one of the things we say in the South [is] ‘If a Girl Scout egged your house, would you buy cookies from her?’ I think that this is a pretty similar scenario,” Sanders added. “There’s no reason for him to go in and sit and pretend like this is going to be just another Saturday night.”

The harshest jokes from Michelle Wolf’s correspondents’ dinner speech

This year was no different, though Trump was more forthright about his animosity toward the media after the White House announced earlier this month he would also be skipping the 2018 version of the dinner. (“So bad and so fake,” Trump said in an interview.)

Instead, Sanders, now the White House press secretary, would attend and represent the administration at the head table. Her presence made for an awkward setup Saturday night, as comedian Michelle Wolf roasted her from the podium only a few feet away.

“I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful,” Wolf said. “Like she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. ‘Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies.’ It’s probably lies.”

As the audience laughed, Sanders set her lips into a thin smile, blinked and nodded slightly.

The next morning, Trump blasted the event on Twitter, calling it a “very big, boring bust” and referring to Wolf as a “so-called comedian.”

Trump’s continued disdain for the event won’t do much to disabuse some people of the notion that his presidential run was spurred by the lingering sting from the 2011 correspondents’ dinner. But he has denied that it has.

Last year on “Fox & Friends,” Trump was asked about his decision to skip the annual gathering that The Post’s Roberts once noted “devolved from a little-known media evening into a black-tie mash-up of the Super Bowl, the Oscars and Davos, Washington-style.”

“Well, I am not a hypocrite,” the president said. “And I haven’t been treated properly. And that’s okay, which is fine.”

“Some of the left say you just can’t take a joke,” co-host Steve Doocy said.

“Do they say that?” the president said. “Well, I’ve taken it. You know, one of the great misconceptions — when President Obama was up … five years ago or whatever, I loved that evening. I had the greatest time.”

“You were the target of the hit,” co-host Brian Kilmeade said.

“You were the piñata,” Doocy added.

“And can I be honest?” Trump continued. “I had the greatest time. Now, I can’t act like I’m thrilled because they’re telling jokes. I mean, he was telling jokes — I’m going to change the name of the White House to Trump House, and other things.”

But, Trump said: “It was fun. And I enjoyed it. And I left, and I told the press — they all said, ‘Did you have a good time?’ And I said it was fantastic. The next day, I read, ‘Donald Trump felt terrible about the evening.’ I loved the evening. I had a great time.”

As The Post’s Heil noted, Trump remains the only president since Ronald Reagan to skip the dinner — “and Reagan had a pretty good reason: He had just been shot.”

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this article, which was first published on Feb. 26, 2017, and has been updated multiple times since.

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