Despite his absence, the evening was filled with unambiguous reminders of who is in the White House. Take the presence of Omarosa Manigault Newman, famous for sandwiching her stint as a White House aide in the Trump administration with two notorious reality show appearances, and her friendly conversation with Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels’s attorney.
Even without the big-name celebrities that have attended the dinner in previous years, Washington knows how to pack an event. The pre-parties were crowded. Selfie chasers who would have once tracked down movie stars were now chasing after Chris Matthews.
Michelle Wolf headlined the evening with a ruthless roast of pretty much everyone in the room.
There was a sense that her bold routine didn’t win over the audience — particularly a stone-faced press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the evening’s head table. Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, tweeted that he walked out early from the dinner. He then retweeted several condemnations of Wolf’s routine from conservatives.
However, Wolf certainly had some fans.
Avenatti said he thought Wolf was “really funny.” And Rob Reiner, a guest of McClatchy, said he sensed in the room that it wasn’t going over well but that he believed “she spoke the truth.”
Some critics of Wolf’s speech came from inside of the White House press corps:
Unfortunately, I don't think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) April 29, 2018
Maggie Haberman, a New York Times journalist who won an award earlier that evening, praised Sanders’s response to Wolf’s jokes.
As the Twitter outrage built, Wolf herself chimed in with a response:
‘You cannot shut me up. Unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.’
Comedian Michelle Wolf didn’t hold back: “Good evening, here we are at the White House correspondents’ dinner,” she said, by way of kicking things off: “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, let’s get this over with.”
She also noted that it’s 2018, and she’s a woman, “so you cannot shut me up. Unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.”
Wolf took plenty of other shots at Trump, including about his wealth. “I’m going to try to make fun of the president in a new way, that will really get him,” she said. “Mr. President, I don’t think you’re very rich. Like, I think you might be rich in Idaho, but in New York you’re doing fine.”
Wolf also played a game where she said “Trump is so broke” and the audience would have to respond, “How broke is he?” The responses:
“He’s so broke, he has to fly failed business class.”
“He’s so broke, he looked for foreign oil in Don Jr.’s hair.”
“He’s so broke, Southwest used him as one of their engines.” There were some gasps after that one. “I know, it’s so soon,” she said. “It’s so soon for that joke.”
Wolf also made fun of Democrats (“You’re somehow going to lose 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor”) though she focused on Trump’s associates most of all. She went through a list of jokes about Sanders, who did not look amused (“I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Mike Pence, if you haven’t seen it, you would love it”). According to reporters in the room, the Sanders jokes did not go over well.
Then Wolf took aim at the media: “The most useful information at CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles.” “Fox News is here, so you know what that means, ladies. Cover your drinks.” Wolf said she knew many people wanted her to make fun of Sean Hannity, but she couldn’t because “this dinner’s for journalists.”
She also made fun of MSNBC’s new slogan, “This is who we are,” calling it “what your mom thinks the sad show on NBC is called.”
It wasn’t just cable: Wolf also joked about how NBC didn’t send Megyn Kelly to the Olympics, despite her $23 million salary.
“Why not? She’s so white, cold and expensive she might as well be the Winter Olympics,” Wolf said, and then referenced one of Kelly’s most famous segments: “And by the way Megyn, Santa’s black. The weird old guy going through your chimney was Bill O’Reilly.”
‘An attack on any journalist is an attack on us all’
How do you handle the president’s absence? This year, the White House Correspondents’ Association opted for a cartoon comedy sketch, poking fun at the fact that Trump wasn’t attending the dinner, featuring animated cameos from journalists.
Margaret Talev, president of the association and a correspondent at Bloomberg, opened with a speech that was alternatively welcoming and challenging to the administration.
“The U.S. president, the same one who has called journalists the enemy of the American people,” had invited the scholars who were honored at this year’s dinner to get an “insider’s glimpse” at the White House.
“The president and vice president went to each scholar and greeted them,” Talev said. “The president asked them whether they were sure they actually wanted to become journalists,” but then said it was a “great profession.” He asked how soon they could become journalists to kick out the current press corps.
After the meeting ended, the students were asked what they thought about it. It was “surreal,” the students told Talev and other journalists who accompanied them. “We nodded because we know the feeling.”
“We’re all here, all of us, because we cherish the First Amendment,” Talev said. “An attack on any journalist is an attack on us all.”
Talev also said the best leaders champion the freedom of the press “even when the scrutiny is turned on them.”
Sitting at the head table in the president’s place was Sanders, whom Talev thanked for being there.
“What has always made America great is the ability to disagree publicly,” Talev said.
Before the scholarship winners were announced, the dinner showed another pretaped comedy bit: a video of outgoing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan updating his LinkedIn page, and making a weed joke in the form of a suggestion from former House speaker John A. Boehner about how to relax.
“I”m going to miss sparring with the press every day. In fact, boredom is probably my biggest worry for life after Congress,” Ryan said.
Talev told the scholarship recipients that “this night is about you, and what you’ve accomplished,” before they were brought on their stage to be congratulated.
The winners are: Rachel Wegner, Kara Tabor, Miranda Moore, Jonah McKeown, Christopher Matthews, Khaki Martin, Soo Rin Kim, Renee Hickman, Jaime Dunaway, and Alex Derosier from the University of Missouri; Simret Aklilu from the University of Maryland; Kat Tenbarge, Jessica Hill and Lauren Fisher from Ohio University; Jinitzail Hernandez, Oyin Falana and Ricky Mark Zipp from Northwestern University; Mary Khan from Iowa State University; Alexa Imani Spencer, Kyra E. Azore and Maya King from Howard University; Tayler Davis from Grambling State University; Davone Morales from George Washington University; Hiba Dlewati from Columbia University; and Pat Poblete and Ariana Bustos from Arizona State University.
Before the journalism awards, the association showed a pretaped message from Aya Hijazi, a social activist who spent nearly three years imprisoned in Egypt. She was freed after sustained media coverage — and a campaign from politicians and activists — brought attention to her case.
The 2018 journalism awards winners were:
Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who won the Aldo Beckman award for presidential news coverage.
Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, Jake Tapper and Carl Bernstein of CNN, who won the Merriman Smith Award for broadcast; and Josh Dawsey formerly of Politico, now of The Washington Post, who won the Merriman Smith Award for print. The Merriman Smith Award honors “presidential news coverage under deadline pressure.”
Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, Tim Reid, Lisa Girion, Grant Smith, Linda So, M.B. Pell and Charles Levinson from Reuters won the Edgar A. Poe Award for their report, “Shock Tactics,” an investigation into Taser-related deaths. The Edgar A. Poe Award honors news coverage of topics “of significant national or regional importance to the American people.”
‘I’d much rather be in Washington, Michigan, than in Washington, D.C., right now’
Meanwhile, Trump spent Saturday night at an event that he actually enjoys — a campaign rally for himself, among a crowd of supporters.
“You may have heard that I was invited to another event tonight, the White House correspondents’ dinner,” Trump said, as the Michigan audience booed at the mention of the press. “But I’d much rather be in Washington, Michigan, than in Washington, D.C., right now.”
The president also compared the size of his crowd with the one he imagined to be at the dinner he was skipping.
“By the way, you want to see a lot of people? Go outside. We could have filled this place up probably five or six times.”
Later in his speech, Trump eviscerated the media for being “very, very dishonest people.”
“In the old days when the newspapers used to write, they’d put names down. Today they say ‘sources have said that President Trump’ — sources? They never say who the source is. They don’t have sources,” he said. “The sources don’t exist in many cases … these are very dishonest people.” (Journalists actually abide by strict rules when using anonymous sources.)
“Fake news,” he added, as his audience cheered. “Very dishonest.”
Trump brought up the dinner again later in his speech.
“By the way, is this better than that phony Washington White House correspondents’ dinner? Is this more fun?” he said. “I could be up there tonight smiling, like, I love when they’re hitting you, shot after shot. These people, they hate your guts … and you know, you gotta smile. And if you don’t smile they’ll say, ‘He was terrible. He couldn’t take it.’ And if you do smile, they’ll say, ‘What was he smiling about?!’ You know, there’s no win.”
The pre-parties were packed (and Omarosa had a “gown attendant”)
As Omarosa Manigault Newman made her way from the red carpet and up the escalators to the Atlantic Media pre-party, her “gown attendant “ followed her, carrying her train and fluffing her hair along the way.
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, glittery sneakers and Chanel interlocking earrings, the attendant, Carlton Marshall, continued carrying the train of Omarosa’s dress as she walked around the cocktail party posing for selfies.
“I’m her personal makeup artist,” Marshall said. “But I’m her everything.”
Omarosa stopped to talk with Avenatti. “What’s up, boo?” she asked. She told him that he was “great on ‘The View’ ” and that she’d text him tomorrow.
When asked about her next big move, Omarosa was coy and said she’s “always” working on something, but for now she was spending time with her husband, a full-time pastor in Jacksonville because “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The couple were guests of the Boston Globe.
Chef José Andrés was also at the Atlantic party, posing for pictures while pointing at people. When a reporter noted that the pointed finger pose was a Trump move, Andrés said, “I was doing it before him!”
By 6:45 p.m., the pre-parties were already getting pretty crowded. Even without the big-name celebrities that have attended the dinner in previous years, Washington knows how to pack these events. Other sightings near the red carpet included Comedy Central’s Jordan Klepper, CNN’s Jake Tapper, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and comedian Kathy Griffin. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was spotted shaking hands with security guards on her way to the receptions.
Former press secretary Sean Spicer mingled in the crowd, looking very happy in his post-White House days. He whipped out his phone and showed a Washington Post reporter a cover photo for his new book, “The Briefing,” which comes out in July. He said he’s been traveling around the world on the speaker circuit and has a talk show “in the works.”
“None of this was in the realm of possibility” before the White House, Spicer said.
Other attendees patrolled for faces they recognized in the crowd for the only reason anybody does that these days: to turn the moment into social media content.
Case in point, this overheard exchange:
“Look, it’s Chris Matthews!”
“I’m not a big Chris Matthews fan.”
“But it will make a good Instagram!”
A gong sounded just before 7:30 p.m. It was time for the dinner-goers to head to the ballroom. The awards and speeches began at about 9:30 p.m.
At the dinner, singer Ty Herndon sang “God Bless America.” Herndon, a guest of Fox News at this year’s dinner, is one of the first male country music stars to come out as gay.
Emily Heil and Helena Andrews-Dyer contributed to this report.