Vice President Pence, shown here at a dinner last year, spoke at the Gridiron Club on Saturday night. (Jeff Morehead/The Chronicle-Tribune via AP)

President Trump wasn’t in the white-tie-clad audience at the Saturday night annual dinner of the Gridiron Club — an elite group of 65 of Washington’s top journalists — but he was there in spirit, or at least as a target.

POTUS, per the club’s tradition, was invited to the swanky but lighthearted affair at the Renaissance Washington Hotel, but he declined. So instead, Vice President Pence was there for the jokey monologues by lawmakers and musical skits by the Fourth Estate, where many of the punchlines targeted Trump and his advisers’ headline-making contacts with Russia.

In the everyone’s-fair-game spirit of the night, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) took aim at the head of her own party, saying that Trump couldn’t be there because he was just a little busy. After all, “Saturday is golf night,” she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also “couldn’t be here,” she continued, nodding to Trump’s tweet Saturday morning claiming that the Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower.  “But don’t worry, he can hear us loud and clear. And, according to Donald Trump, so can President Obama.”

Another laugh line from Ernst: “I actually earned some points with the White House tonight — on my salad I asked for Russian dressing. Jeff Sessions recommended it. He got the recipe from the Russian ambassador.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave a shout-out to the members of the Trump administration. “I want to greet them in a way they’re more familiar with,” she said. “Nasdrovia!”

Though the non-journos in the audience included White House press secretary Sean Spicer and adviser Kellyanne Conway, the crowd was lighter on VIPs than in years past. In addition to the no-show from the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions (another expected guest) skipped out in favor of dinner with the boss down at Mar-a-Lago. And Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, too, dropped out, per Politico, though it wasn’t clear who had invited the suddenly in-the-spotlight diplomat.

(The evening is technically off the record, so we’re relying here on prepared remarks and spies inside the room.)

Of course, there were targets for the ha-has that didn’t have Russian roots. Ernst poked fun of the age of the average senator: “I’m not saying the men in the Senate are old, but Bernie Sanders calls me ‘jailbait.’ They really are old. … Trust me, Donald Trump isn’t the only one bothered by leaks.”

Ouch!

For his part, Pence stayed clear of the Russki fodder. “The president did ask me to send a message tonight,” he said. “‘Be friendly.’ No, that’s from my wife. No, here it is. ‘Remember to pick up some milk on the way home.’ That one is from the president.”

Perhaps the evening’s biggest headline moment didn’t come courtesy of the jokes, but rather one of the Veep’s more sincere moments — delivered before the very people that his boss has often derided as “FAKE NEWS.”

“President Trump and I,” Pence said, “support the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment.”