Comedian Michelle Wolf’s performance at Saturday night’s White House correspondents’ dinner, in which the “Daily Show” contributor landed some edgy punchlines at President Trump and some of his top staffers was … polarizing. And is there any surprise which side President Trump came down on?
The thumbs-down from Trump followed negative reviews from reliable Trump defenders but also from some journalists, too, with many critics saying the controversy should make the White House Correspondents’ Association rethink some of the dinner’s traditions.
American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp said the “mocking” prompted him to leave the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, where some 3,000 members of the media dined alongside administration types, lawmakers and others.
My wife @mercedesschlapp and I walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner. Enough of elites mocking all of us— Matt Schlapp (@mschlapp) April 29, 2018
And former White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the dinner — not just Wolf’s performance — a “disgrace.”
Tonight’s #WHCD was a disgrace— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) April 29, 2018
On Sunday, Spicer kept up the commentary, pressing the journalists who lead the White House Correspondents’ Association, the organization that hosted the dinner and selected Wolf to entertain the crowd, for comment. When she announced Wolf as the headliner in February, WHCA president Margaret Talev had praised Wolf’s “truth-to-power style” and said her “self-made, feminist edge make her the right voice now.”
Some pointed out Wolf’s punchlines about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who attended the dinner and sat at the head table in the stead of her boss, who skipped the dinner for the second time in his administration. “She burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Wolf said of the Trump spokeswoman, who she also likened to an “Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women.”
New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman credited Sanders, who looked on impassively during Wolf’s comedy routine, for remaining stoic.
That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) April 29, 2018
Wolf herself clapped back Sunday, responding to Haberman’s tweet with her own missive. Wolf defended her jokes, saying they were aimed at Sanders’s “despicable behavior,” not her looks, and jabbed back at Haberman: “Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though?”
Hey mags! All these jokes were about her despicable behavior. Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though? 😘 https://t.co/JRzzvhBuey— Michelle Wolf (@michelleisawolf) April 29, 2018
Conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt noted Sanders’s “unflinching gaze” during the event, which he said “mocked the values of civil society.”
I think @PressSec unflinching gaze at Michelle Wolf was the most interesting thing about the event, which is intended to honor the First Amendment but in fact mocked the values of civil society so thoroughly as to stun even the cynical reporters. The honest ones will admit it.— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) April 29, 2018
MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski called the routine an “attack” on Sanders and suggested the association end its use of performances by comedians and late-night after-parties. “Women who use their government positions to spread lies and misinformation deserve to face the same withering criticism as men,” she wrote. “But leave our looks out of it. Watching from home, I hurt for Sarah, her husband and her children.”
Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.— Mika Brzezinski (@morningmika) April 29, 2018
Concern about the controversial comedy went beyond whether it was too harsh. One South Carolina-based reporter for the Associated Press suggested it further drove a wedge between the media and conservatives.
If the #WHCD dinner did anything tonight, it made the chasm between journalists and those who don't trust us, even wider. And those of us based in the red states who work hard every day to prove our objectivity will have to deal with it.— Meg Kinnard (@MegKinnardAP) April 29, 2018
Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent at the New York Times, also worried about the impact on reporters.
Unfortunately, I don't think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) April 29, 2018
Talev said she regretted that the comedy had “overshadowed” the aim of the event, which is ostensibly to honor the First Amendment and the work of journalists. “To some extent, those 15 minutes are now defining what had been a really unifying night,” she said during an appearance on CNN. But the WHCA president said that she chose Wolf because she is a talented comedian and that comedy is often provocative. “She brought to the night what she thought was important to say,” Talev said.
Wolf did have her defenders, though.
Michael Avenatti, the attorney who represents Stormy Daniels, said after the dinner that he thought Wolf was “really funny.” And Rob Reiner, a guest of McClatchy, told us that he sensed in the room it wasn’t going over well but that he believed “she spoke the truth.” He tweeted Sunday that “Trump has so poisoned the atmosphere by attacking the disabled, gold star parents, Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks, women, the press, the rule of law that a comedian who simply tells the truth is offensive? She’s joking. He’s not.”
Comedian Kathy Griffin, whose own anti-Trump sentiments landed her in hot water, called it “great” and pinned the criticism on sexism and on Washington denizens’ thin skins. Wolf’s harshest jokes were some of her best, Griffin said in an interview. “Some of her comments made a lot of these straighty, backwards dinosaurs uncomfortable, and I live for that,” she said. “Those were some of my favorite moments.”
Comedian and writer Kumail Nanjiani defended Wolf, too, apparently comparing her words to those of the president and members of his administration. Wolf, he tweeted, was merely “call[ing] them out.”
Nanjiani also wrote that he had asked Haberman to point to where Wolf criticized Sanders’s appearance, and claimed that the New York Times reporter responded by unfollowing him. Haberman “has an extremely important job,” he wrote. “Making vague statements that she herself cannot back up with facts/quotes isn’t helping.”
Actress and writer Lena Waithe is apparently also on Team Michelle. “Excuse me while i follow @michelleisawolf,” she tweeted.
TV critic Emily Nussbaum countered the idea that Wolf’s jokes were focused on Sanders’s appearance.
The more I think about it, the more impressed I am that Michelle Wolf did such a harsh act WITHOUT insulting any woman's looks. She aimed straight at the white female enforcers & never once suggested that anyone was a bimbo or a dog—like the man they work for surely would have.— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) April 29, 2018
Political analyst Howard Fineman called it “blunt, crude … funny,” and noted that it’s not a comedian’s “job to behave.”
RE #MichelleWolf: 1. Yep: blunt, crude, pitiless. Remind you of, say, a president? 2. She torched EVERYONE, even #Dems, #Stormy, #media. 3. She wasn’t playing to all America or the room, but to her #Netflix deal. 4. She was INVITED. 5. It’s not her job to behave. 6. She’s funny. pic.twitter.com/7NMeKEBLLF— howardfineman (@howardfineman) April 29, 2018
And some Trump critics compared remarks that the president made in a rally in Michigan on Saturday night to Wolf’s.
Compare what @michelleisawolf and @realDonaldTrump both said tonight and and ask yourself which one was less factual and more dangerous than the other ... go ahead, I’ll wait. https://t.co/gtZeialLkn— Moe Davis (@ColMorrisDavis) April 29, 2018
But controversy about comedians’ performances at media dinners is nothing new. For some, the Wolf controversy brought to mind the 2006 WHCA dinner, where Stephen Colbert delivered a barbed act that many said was too harsh on both the media and then-President George W. Bush.
2006 and 2018: Facial expressions say it all — pic.twitter.com/VJDzqf1C6S— Karen Tumulty (@ktumulty) April 29, 2018
And NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell tweeted that Wolf’s performance reminded her of when shock jock Don Imus headlined the Radio-TV Correspondents’ Association’s annual black-tie dinner in 1996. Imus shocked the crowd — and President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton, who were seated on the dais — by making jokes about the president’s extramarital affairs and his wife’s legal woes.
Apology is owed to @PressSec and others grossly insulted ny Michelle Wolf at White House Correspondents Assoc dinner which started with uplifting heartfelt speech by @margarettalev - comedian was worst since Imus insulted Clinton’s— Andrea Mitchell (@mitchellreports) April 29, 2018
After the scandal, the Radio-TV association sent a letter of apology to the Clintons. But in the case of Wolf, the WHCA is making no such concessions. “Michelle Wolf is a comedian,” Talev said on CNN. “She speaks for herself, and it’s her right to do that under free speech in the First Amendment, which we were celebrating.”