President Trump’s missives have the power to shock — and none more so than his reply to an invitation to attend the annual dinner put on next month by the Gridiron Club, an elite group of top Washington journalists. His surprising answer? A simple “yes.”
A president’s decision to attend the swanky, white-tie affair — in which club members put on hokey song-and-dance-numbers in the Beltway version of a high school talent show — isn’t usually news. The commander in chief is invited every year, and presidents often make appearances. But Trump isn’t your average POTUS. He snubbed last year’s dinner, the first of his presidency, and he’s shown little interest in participating in any of the niceties of the Washington social scene that so many of his predecessors did — even if gritting their teeth all the while.
Trump has a particularly hostile relationship with the media, and so the proposition of spending the evening laughing along with the very Establishment Media types he routinely derides as “FAKE NEWS” seemed unlikely. (For the uninitiated, the Gridiron is a 132-year-old club whose exclusive membership is capped at 65 of the city’s prominent journalists from print, television and radio.)
But his apparent willingness to don white-tie finery and yuk it up with the Fourth Estate for at least one night quickly raised a question: Would he also attend the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner, another social obligation typically on the president’s calendar later in the spring? Again, Trump was a “no” on that event last year. But were we in some sort of thaw of Trump’s social freeze?
It seemed so: Not long after the Gridiron announced Trump was attending its March 3 dinner, the Daily Mail reported that Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump would also attend the correspondents’ dinner on April 28, which is a larger, splashier televised affair. The very idea of it seemed strange — that dinner’s traditions include a monologue by a professional comedian that typically skewers the president, as well as a stand-up act by the president himself — a gig that requires self-deprecation, which is not Trump’s forte.
But wait! It seems Sanders spoke too soon, and subsequently issued a statement to the tabloid clarifying that she had misread the reporter’s query and that Trump was only booked for the Gridiron, not the WHCD. And Jeff Mason, a White House reporter for Reuters and the immediate past president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, also tweeted that the organization still awaits word on whether Trump will attend.
“Sarah Sanders says @realDonaldTrump will attend the annual Gridiron dinner with journalists, but says no decision has been made on whether he will attend the @whca White House Correspondents’s Dinner this year,” Mason wrote.
The party-RSVP whiplash was enough to interrupt a holiday news cycle on a week when Congress is out of session. And although it still isn’t clear whether Trump will attend the big event, it also focused attention on the prospect that he actually might. His boycott last year came as a relief to some, who had long thought the dinner had become an over-bloated affair — and who hardly relished the thought of rubbing shoulders with an administration that had all but declared war on the media. The usual coterie of Hollywood celebrities didn’t show, and media organizations canceled traditional A-list pre- and post-dinner parties.
Trump has been roasted at the dinner before, though it was long before he was president. In 2011, President Obama made Trump, who was then attending as a mere civilian, the target of some of his harshest jokes. Of Trump’s credentials to run for office, Obama brought up Trump’s reality TV résumé. “All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” Obama said. “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 kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well-handled, sir. Well-handled.”
Kevin Chaffee, the senior editor of the glossy Washington Life magazine and a longtime observer of the Beltway social scene, says he wouldn’t be surprised if Trump attended the Gridiron dinner but continued to skip the WHCD. The Gridiron, he notes, is smaller, ostensibly off the record, and usually involves a far gentler ribbing of the president than the WHCD’s ringer comedian offers up.
Which might be more palatable to a president who’s notoriously uncomfortable at the receiving end of a joke.
“You know what they say about the Gridiron — it singes but it doesn’t burn,” Chaffee says. “It’s more like it singes but it won’t make you cringe.”