Welcome to coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. This year, it was different.
That was largely because President Trump declined to attend. Usually, a joke-filled speech by the commander in chief is a highlight of the evening, which helped make the dinner an A-list draw over the decades.
But even before Trump sent his regrets, it was clear that folks from Hollywood — a community vocally opposed to the president — were not interested in coming to Washington this year. Many corporate sponsors of the glitziest parties from past seasons also decided to stand down.
There was also competition: Comedian Samantha Bee hosted her “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” Saturday afternoon in Washington, which also attracted an audience of celebrities and journalists.
In the president’s absence, the dinner refocused on the values of a free press. Association President Jeff Mason pointedly declared, “We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.” Comedian Hasan Minhaj headlined the event, taking shots at the administration, and, of course, members of the media.
See our full coverage below.
Hasan Minhaj: “Don Rickles died just so you wouldn’t ask him to do this gig”
During his monologue, comedian and “The Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj said that he was explicitly told not to go after the absent President Trump or the administration — but if true, he certainly ignored the marching order. (“You were not told that,” White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason appeared to say off-screen.)
“I would say it’s an honor to be here, but that would be an alternative fact. No one wanted to do this, so of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant. No one wanted this gig,” said Minhaj. “Don Rickles died just so you wouldn’t ask him to do this gig.”
There were jokes about Russia: “The leader of our country is not here. That’s because he lives in Moscow, it’s a very long flight.” Jokes about how the press should hope Trump keeps golfing: “The longer you keep him distracted, the longer we’re not at war with North Korea.” Jokes about how it’s a good thing Trump didn’t attend the dinner: “He’s done far too much bombing this month.”
He also took some shots at the Trump administration, including Sean Spicer, whose “go-to move when you ask him a tough question is denying the Holocaust.” And Mike Pence, who wasn’t there because there were women in attendance who were ovulating. “Good job ladies, because of you, we couldn’t hang out with Mike Pence,” he said. He noted that Jeff Sessions RSVP’d “no,” which is “his second-favorite ‘n’ word.” There were also the requisite jokes about the media — how CNN calls everything “breaking news”; how if he bombs his monologue, MSNBC’s Brian Williams will say he did a stunning job; how Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly’s $25 million exit package is the “only package he won’t force a woman to touch.”
Toward the end, Minhaj’s tone changed — he reflected on the surreal feeling of the entire evening (“I feel like I’m a tribute in ‘The Hunger Games,’ and if this goes poorly, Steve Bannon gets to eat me.”) and turned serious, marveling that because we live in a democracy, a first generation Indian-American Muslim can get on the White House correspondents’ dinner stage and make fun of the president.
“Even the president is not beyond the reach of the First Amendment. But the president didn’t show up because Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech,” Minhaj said. “The man who tweets everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledges the amendment that allows him to do it.”
He said that in all likelihood, in a few hours, “Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minaj bombed at this dinner.”
“That’s his right,” Minhaj said. “And I’m proud that all of us are here tonight to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”
“Mr. President, the media is not fake news.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner had a message for President Trump, and it came from Bob Woodward: “Mr. President, the media is not fake news.”
Woodward and Carl Bernstein took the stage at the more subdued event, trading journalism lessons they learned from each other over the years — and addressing the current state of their profession.
Here was one of those lessons, from Bernstein: “Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy, and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be. And when lying is combined with secrecy, there’s usually a pretty good road map in front of us.”
And one, from Woodward: “Journalists should not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth.” Another, after a retelling of some of the key moments from the pair’s Watergate reporting: “very aggressive reporting is often necessary.”
Trump’s absence was a constant yet mostly implicit thread through the evening’s first speeches. There was a reading of the text of the First Amendment. WHCA President Jeff Mason made sure to say the event was “sold out” in his opening remarks. There was lot of talk of threats to a free press, both abroad and at home.
Others were more overt: Alec Baldwin, in his Trump costume from SNL, gave an extremely brief word of encouragement via video (“keep up the good work”). And there was this line from Mason in his opening speech, directly addressing the way the sitting president speaks about the media: “We are not fake news, We are not failing news organizations, and we are not the enemy of the American people.” That line got a standing ovation.
Woodward and Bernstein also came with warnings, one against “self-satisfaction or smugness” in the current political climate. And Bernstein added that “the people with the information we want should not be pigeon holed or prejudged by their ideology or their politics.”
“We’re reporters, not judges, not legislators,” Bernstein said. “Our job is to put the best obtainable version of the truth out there, period. Especially now.”
The refocus on, you know, journalism also came with a little bit more of an emphasis on students. The event, after all, is in part for giving out scholarships.
Student journalists hosted by CNN and Yahoo News also got a shout out, as did the group of Kansas high school journalists hosted by HuffPost. Their student paper’s investigation into the school’s new principal led to her resignation.
Journalists are the celebrities at this year’s pre-parties and red carpet
The pared-down nature of this year’s event was obvious from the street outside the Washington Hilton. In previous years, a crowd of teens would be clustered outside the hotel as early as 5 p.m. to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars.
This year, there were no onlookers outside of the hotel. Traffic, usually snarled for blocks, was a breeze. Instead of gawking fans and paparazzi, the lobby was full of pilots and flight attendants, offloaded from an airport shuttle, checking into their rooms.
Leonardo DiCaprio was spotted … catching a flight out of D.C. earlier this afternoon. He was in town for the Peoples Climate March.
There were fewer cameras on the red carpet, although around 6 p.m., the crowd started to stream in. Washington chef Fabio Trabocchi and his wife, Maria, who own the restaurant Fiola, were some of the first people on the carpet. They were photographed by another, lingering couple — not the photojournalists.
Also spotted were former secretary of state Madeleine Albright; Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan and Executive Editor Martin Baron; CNN reporters Jim Acosta and Brian Stelter; CNN political commentator Van Jones; Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn; and veteran TV producer/professional Washington connector Tammy Haddad.
April Ryan, meanwhile, was pre-party royalty. American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent wore a gown with a long train and fielded photo requests with Al Sharpton on her arm.
Sure, some of the media-sponsored receptions felt almost normal. Guests ate California rolls and bites of chicken pita in the packed Thomson Reuters party, where a DJ played soul music and 20-somethings lined up for a photo booth.
Actual journalists at the parties seemed to be pleased by the lack of celebrity overload, anyway. “These are people I actually know and want to talk to,” one newspaper reporter said. “No more making awkward small talk with the B-list celebrities.”
It’s worth noting that the pre-dinner events were not completely devoid of celebrities. Matthew Modine was spotted. And Kathrine Herzer, who plays the daughter on “Madam Secretary,” was pretty excited about one encounter before the dinner.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to get my picture taken with Madeleine Albright,'” she said. “It was really cool to meet her.”
But don’t be fooled: when we said this year was “different,” we really, really meant it. The hallways were empty throughout the Hilton, compared to previous years. If this were any other year, you’d have to fight your way through the intersections pictured here:
Would-be celebrity gawkers like Marjorie Jingo and Ann Hirsch, two retired doctor’s office employees from New Jersey, were reduced to trying — and failing — to name an attendee they swore they’d seen on MSNBC.
The friends were in town for the climate march, and they had no idea that an event was taking place at their hotel tonight. But they lingered because Marjorie’s grandson loves Anderson Cooper.
“I even had to go out and get him a purple tie,” said Jingo, 81.
Jingo and Hirsch were sure they’d see some famous TV personalities.
“Maybe Rachel Maddow?” said Jingo.
But soon, the pair gave up and headed to get a dinner of their own. Soon after, CNN’s Don Lemon arrived.
‘We have a whole table of fact checkers’ at Samantha Bee’s ‘Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner’
Hours before the official correspondents’ dinner began, Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” team kicked off an alternative event at DAR Constitution Hall: “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” Bee had touted her event as a place where “journalists and nonirritating celebrities from around the world” could mingle, to pay homage to a free and functional press.
“We thought it behooved us to throw a party for people who don’t normally have parties thrown for them,” Bee told The Washington Post in an interview on the event’s red carpet earlier this afternoon (the “dinner” taped this afternoon; it will air tonight at 10 p.m. on TBS.)
“We have a whole table of fact checkers,” Bee added. “We’re so excited that they’re here.”
Our colleagues have a run-down from the actual “dinner”; the red carpet gave a good preview of Bee’s plans — and who was there to see it.
“Tonight is going to be a different kind of night,” said CNN’s Dana Bash, who is attending both of Saturday’s big events. “Why wouldn’t we have something that is equally different, like Samantha Bee?”
“Our role is to drink and celebrate with all the amazing journalists, who are doing great work in this terrifying time,” Tegan Quin of indie pop duo Tegan and Sara told The Washington Post.
Later, actor Matthew Modine spoke to reporters about how he felt humor could change politics. “Sean Spicer’s learned a lot about humor at his expense, and why it’s important to tell the truth,” he quipped.
Ana Gasteyer, who played Hillary Clinton during her time on SNL, said it was “very hard to go through a day without thinking about how thoughtful and insightful a leader she would have been.”
Gasteyer is a D.C. native, but some attendees less familiar with the District had some observations about what makes us, uh, special. When The Washington Post Facebook Live team asked “Full Frontal” correspondent and comedian Ashley Nicole Black what’s different about D.C. — maybe nerd capital of the country — from L.A. or New York, she responded: “Everyone in D.C. walks like ‘I am so important.’ Going to get a sandwich they are like ‘You know who is going to get a sandwich!’ I’ve never seen that in any other city.”
Attendees were no doubt expecting to hear plenty of jokes at the expense of President Trump. But the biggest surprise of the night came with surprise guest Will Ferrell, who reprised his infamous George W. Bush impersonation to roast Trump. “How do you like me now?” he said to a roaring audience.
A more muted party scene on Friday night
Several big-spending out-of-town companies that had, in recent years, thrown some of the more lavish parties (People magazine, Google, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair) took a pass on Washington this year.
Yes, there were still plenty of parties happening this weekend, but instead of gift bags and humble brags, now you get a lecture.
“We’re going to kick off the proceedings with me talking,” Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks announced at Voto Latino’s cocktail reception Friday. Much talk of the importance of a free press followed. Meanwhile, CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta, whom President Trump berated as “fake news” at a January presser, qualified as a celebrity, taking time to pose for photos with a group of fans.
Across town, at Atlantic Media owner David Bradley’s home in Massachusetts Avenue Heights, the VIPs were senators, titans of industry and even a Trump Cabinet secretary — Gen. Jim Mattis, who mingled in a bipartisan and high-powered room with the likes of Richard Branson, Rajiv Shah, Susan E. Rice, Rep. Edward R. Royce and Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Susan Collins.
A party hosted by Capitol File, which in previous years filled up with “Scandal” and “House of Cards” stars, was instead decorated with actual White House correspondents. Meanwhile, the celebrity arts-advocacy group the Creative Coalition easily had the highest density of Hollywood, with a collection of well-liked TV actors (Chad Lowe, Tim Daly, Alyssa Milano) but few who planned to attend the dinner Saturday night.
The United Talent Agency, which represents Samantha Bee and several broadcast news luminaries, threw a shindig at Georgetown’s posh Fiola Mare that drew actor (and former White House staffer) Kal Penn and Sen. (and former bit-part player in “The Dark Knight”) Patrick J. Leahy.
By Saturday morning, when a cohort of well-connected Washingtonians hosted their annual Garden Brunch, in the Georgetown backyard of hotelier and Democratic fundraiser Connie Milstein, it was clear that this was the year that Washington took back the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Foreign policy wonk-about-town Steve Clemons, already in his tux, was air-kissing D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, as former protocol chief Capricia Marshall and Reps. Darrell Issa and Debbie Dingell mingled nearby. There were no Kardashians in a several-hour radius. White House reporter April Ryan was the star being asked to pose for selfies at the buffet.
“This is the way it used to be,” said veteran PR woman Janet Donovan. “Way back when.”
Staff writers Emily Heil, Maura Judkis, Ellen McCarthy, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.