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.
And former White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the dinner — not just Wolf’s performance — a “disgrace.”
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.
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?”
Conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt noted Sanders’s “unflinching gaze” during the event, which he said “mocked the values of civil society.”
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.”
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.
Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent at the New York Times, also worried about the impact on reporters.
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.
Political analyst Howard Fineman called it “blunt, crude … funny,” and noted that it’s not a comedian’s “job to behave.”
And some Trump critics compared remarks that the president made in a rally in Michigan on Saturday night to Wolf’s.
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.
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.
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.”