On Saturday, President Trump announced via Twitter that he would not attend the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, ending tireless speculation about whether the newly minted commander in chief would show up at the annual journalism gala to roast and be roasted by a Washington press corps with which he has had a combative relationship. But will his absence really matter?
After news of Trump’s “sorry not sorry” tweet emerged late Saturday afternoon, the inevitable headlines hit all the familiar homepages. The fact that 45 would skip a dinner that traditionally allows the sitting president to blow off some steam, of course, is newsworthy. President Barack Obama attended all eight dinners held during his time in the White House and, by all accounts, wholly owned the evening, particularly that infamous night in 2011 when he took aim directly at Trump.
“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 joked. “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?”
Afterward Trump praised Obama’s delivery (while knocking comedian Seth Meyers’s routine), telling reporters that he was honored to be there. But that didn’t dispel the conspiracy theory that he’d been deeply humiliated to the tune of planning a revenge presidential bid.
Whichever scenario you choose, Trump’s current relationship with the media, which he recently dubbed the “enemy of the American People,” obviously makes his absence from the dinner noteworthy. However, the question of whether the president’s surprisingly polite rejection (just who is he “wishing well”? The very journalists he calls “fake”?) somehow marks the beginning of the end for the nearly century-old tradition is far-fetched.
Sure the gala has gone Hollywood in very recent years, but at its core, the annual dinner is meant to be a pretty standard industry get-together — albeit with the president as entertainment. In 1991, the association began using money from the $300-a-plate affair for scholarships and journalism awards, not to fill reporters’ Instagram feeds with celebrity selfies. The night also helps pay the six-figure salary of the organization’s executive director, who coordinates the press pool and ensures access to the president — a mission that has proven a tad difficult over the past 30 days.
And although nearly every president since Calvin Coolidge has attended at least one of the dinners held during their presidency, there have been nights sans the commander in chief.
Richard Nixon, who was no fan of the press corps, skipped the dinner in 1972 and 1974. Jimmy Carter also had better things to do in 1978 and 1980. A year later, Reagan was recuperating from an assassination attempt in front of the very hotel where the gala in now held.
By avoiding the ballroom of the Washington Hilton on April 29, Trump won’t be throwing a major wrench into the night’s long run, as White House journalist April Ryan pointed out Sunday.
If anything, Trump’s absence may indirectly allow the correspondents’ dinner to course-correct. Since A-listers elbowed out sources and actual reporters, many media companies themselves have criticized the glitzy affair as being too self-congratulatory and too chummy with the executive branch.
Starting in 2007, the New York Times bowed out of the dinner, which executive editor Dean Baquet once called “a very odd, celebrity-driven event that made it look like the press and government all shuck their adversarial roles for one night of the year.” Most recently, Bloomberg News, which reliably hosted the dinner’s swankiest after-party, decided to cancel that exclusive shindig. The New Yorker and Vanity Fair also gave the weekend a hard pass.
Now, with the president and presumably the celebrities (who’ve been avoiding Washington since the women’s march) all washing their hair that night, the dinner might finally get the chance to downsize to its humble roots.