And here’s the not-so-dirty secret among the usual Washington denizens who have been left behind, like survivors of some zombie apocalypse: They’re okay with this. They are free to munch on the (plentiful) hors-d’oeuvres and belly up to open bars (hey, no lines!). Trump might still be working on making America great again, but he’s already restored some sense of normalcy to the White House correspondents’ dinner by declaring that, while he wouldn’t be attending, members of his administration are free to mingle with the reviled purveyors of fake news, at least for the weekend.
“Last year we felt like we had been naughty and were punished by the president,” said Steve Clemons, the Atlantic’s Washington editor-at-large and a veteran of enough WHCDs to make him eligible for a medal of some kind. He’s at his second party of the evening, a shindig thrown at the British ambassador’s residence and co-hosted by the embassy, Washington Life magazine, The Washington Diplomat newspaper and Craft Media, where a DJ is spinning a remix of “Rocket Man.” “This year, we know we’re good, and it’s the president who’s been bad. But his staff is allowed to play with us anyway.”
And so it came to pass.
At a Friday night dinner thrown by Atlantic Media owner David Bradley in his tented backyard just off Embassy Row, things were back to the normal, slightly wonky ways of Washington.
Wearing a white dress with cutout shoulders, first daughter Ivanka Trump arrived alongside her husband and fellow presidential adviser Jared Kushner, mingling with the politics-and-media crowd, which included Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his wife, Hilary Geary Ross, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Bipartisan mingling is still a thing. Guests had to navigate around a tight knot formed by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, all of whom looked deep in conversation.
Bradley’s pre-dinner welcome to the heavyweight-heavy crowd was interrupted by a loud mechanical buzz from a neighboring yard. “Just the vice president with the chainsaw again,” the host explained. (Yep, the residents of the Naval Observatory live within sugar-borrowing distance). In typical Washington fashion, the meal was accompanied by a panel discussion.
In the Trump era, some of the glitzier annual parties that had, in the past, surrounded the correspondents’ dinner have been canceled. R.I.P. to the A-Listy People/Time party and its groaning swag bags. The likes of Google, HBO and the New Yorker declined to throw soirees of their own. Nevertheless, even with a diminished social scene, Washington’s partiers persisted.
Over in Georgetown, at waterfront hotspot Fiola Mare, United Talent Agency’s annual WHCD pregame brought its A-game on Friday — if not its A-Listers.
Hey look it’s Jake Tapper! It’s Alisyn Camerota! And … that guy from “The Daily Show”!
Journalist Dan Abrams, a co-host of the party alongside UTA Co-President Jay Sures, said that journalists need to be celebrated, now more than ever. “Obviously, with the president deciding not to come, it becomes more about the White House correspondents as opposed to the White House correspondents’ dinner, which became kind of a celebrity thing. And I think it’s come back to its roots.”
Guests did tear themselves away from the raw bar and champagne long enough to ogle one novelty among them: Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who has quickly become a cable-news fixture.
Avenatti was affable and snapped plenty of photos with fans. But he was also “off.” Yes, he does, in fact, have an off button. Although he wasn’t doing interviews that night, he had no problem offering up his phone number to answer any questions in the morning. We managed to pry out of him that this was his first correspondents’ dinner, and that he’d be attending, sans his famous client, as a guest of the Associated Press.
Nearby, there was the actual star of the evening, huddled in a quiet corner of the restaurant with some friends: Comedian Michelle Wolf, a UTA client and the headliner for Saturday night’s dinner. For someone who was going to be in the spotlight very soon, she seemed to shun it. Was it weird that everyone was ostensibly here to celebrate her?
“I think it’s for everyone. There’s a leg of ham.” (There was, in fact, a large hunk of jambon.) “Everyone’s happy.”
Okay, so what was the plan for later Friday and then Saturday?
“I’m probably going to stay up for an unreasonable amount of time for no reason whatsoever,” Wolf said. After that, she plans to go for run, sit in hair and makeup for who-knows-how-long and then hit the stage.
Dumb question: Was she nervous? Not really. What worried her most was that everyone kept emphasizing what a tough crowd the Washington Hilton ballroom tends to be, when filled with journalists.
“I’m not expecting it to feel good,” said Wolf. “If other comedians like it, I’ll be happy.”
Back at the British ambassador’s residence, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was the boldest of names. This wasn’t the journo-lecturing Sanders we know from behind that lectern. This version was laughing amid the crowd of media types, wearing a sparkling metallic dress, strappy heels and fun earrings.
“You do an amazing job!” a young woman gushed at Sanders as the two posed for a selfie.
CNN’s Jim Acosta was holding court on the heat-lamped terrace, while familiar faces like Nancy Pelosi, Martin O’Malley and Chris Van Holland streamed past. Oh, look: There’s Anthony Scaramucci, the famously short-tenured former White House communications director. We tried to engage him in conversation, but the Mooch wasn’t having it.
“That was a rough story you wrote,” he said, referring to our coverage of his Press Club appearance the day before. Okay then, moving on to the next soiree …
“Wait, do celebrities still come to this?” asked one patron of the Kreeger Museum bash sponsored by Capitol File Magazine, when the arrival of a security detail caused necks to collectively crane away from the Chagalls and Picassos toward the potential A-Lister. Turns out, no. It was merely Cooper Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s son and the creative head of Playboy, who is hosting his own WHCD-adjacent party on Saturday night.
That would have to do for celeb-spotting there (hey, old habits die hard). Organizers had billed the party as having an artsy vibe, as if the cool drama kids had a secret midnight meeting to which the nerds in the yearbook club were definitely not invited. Reportedly, Omarosa had RSVP’d yes, as had comedian Kathy Griffin and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. But by 9:15 p.m., none of them had showed, and folks were itching to hop to the next soiree.
The partying continued at the White House Correspondents’ Jam, a multi-band concert at the music venue at the Hamilton, thrown by Rolling Stone keyboardist Chuck Leavell and his enviro-news outfit, Mother Nature Network. Andrea Mitchell was there, and when a photographer wanted to take her picture with Huckabee Sanders — yes, she was here, too — the NBC newswoman removed the press secretary’s drink from her hand before the pair posed for the camera. This is not Mitchell’s first rodeo.
The band playing was fronted by actor Kevin Bacon and his brother. Earlier, there had been performances by a lineup of bands with journalist members, including one featuring NBC anchor Lester Holt on bass. “They weren’t bad,” a suit-wearing guy at the bar told a friend.
And — aha! — at last we’d discovered where all the Hollywood folks in Washington were holed up: The Creative Coalition’s annual “Right to Bear Arts” gala in a ballroom at the Mayflower hotel was the place to find the good-looking crowd last night. On Friday, the arts advocacy group had held its annual lobbying day, an event typically timed to allow the celebs to hit up the WHCD after bending lawmakers’ ears. But this year, few of the “actor-vists” planned to stick around for the dinner itself.
“Twin Peaks” actress Madchen Amick was spotted grabbing a beer at the bar. “I started with water, but here I am,” she said, as she walked away, clutching the bottle. Tell us about it. Washington, circa 2018 seems to have that effect on people. Also in the house? Cynthia Bailey of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta”; Sean Giambrone of “The Goldbergs”; Shiri Appleby of “UnREAL”; and Creative Coalition President and “Madam Secretary” star Tim Daly.
Turns out, Washington and Hollywood’s enduring fascination with each other still exists, even if the mutual admiration dance won’t continue on Saturday night at the Hilton.
Actor Steve Howey from Showtime’s “Shameless” was still on a high from his earlier visit to the Capitol, where he did very Washington things like having meetings with lawmakers. “It’s like if someone from here went to a movie set and got to hang out with a bunch of stars,” he said, “and then went to a Hollywood party after.”