This year’s White House correspondents dinner featured a deeply satirical edge and a variety of voices in an evening of provocative political humor.
Comedian Michelle Wolf, best known for her contributions on “The Daily Show,” headlined the event, unleashing an unusually biting and raunchy routine. She mocked lawmakers and members of the media, but focused on President Donald Trump, who was not in attendance, and others from the White House in a routine that drew harsh critiques from many in the audience and online.
Trump, who has called the media “the enemy of the American people,” held a campaign-style rally in Michigan instead, as he did in Pennsylvania during last year’s dinner. Representing him at Saturday night’s dinner, which raises money for scholarships, was White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Sanders, who was seated at the main table just a few feet from Wolf, drew some of the harshest jokes of the evening from the comedian. Those jokes were met mainly with gasps, some chuckles, and sometimes silence.
The dinner, referred to in some circles as “nerd prom,” brings together journalists and government officials to celebrate the First Amendment.
In a lighter brand of comedy to begin the program, Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents Association and a CNN contributor, presented a cartoon spoof of what might have happened if Trump had attended the dinner, while ribbing how famous media personalities would have covered it.
Talev also denounced attempts by people to label journalists as dishonest or paint their work that way.
“We reject efforts by anyone, especially our elected leaders, to paint journalism as un-American, to undermine trust between reporter and reader, or to cast doubt on the relevance of fact and truth in the modern age,” she said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan offered a video message in which he poked fun at his impending retirement, showing himself updating his LinkedIn account.
“I’m going to miss sparring with the press every day,” Ryan tells the camera. “In fact, boredom is probably my biggest worry for life after Congress. Luckily, Boehner texted me the other day and he said he found something that helps him chill out. It’s something to do with grass, I don’t really know.”
But Ryan then switched to a more serious note, praising the White House Correspondents’ Association scholarship students he met at the White House on Friday for their hard work.
“My message to the next generation of reporters, it’s really simple – know that what you do matters,” Ryan said. “There’s so much noise out there, but our Republic does not work without an informed electorate. Challenge yourself to challenge those of us in public office.”
Talev, a senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, provided an anecdote from the students’ recent trip to the White House.
“The President asked them if they were sure they actually wanted to become journalists, but then he praised journalism as – and I quote – a great profession, and also asked them how quickly they could get to work so that they could kick us out and replace us,” Talev said. When she asked the students how they felt, she said a group of them responded simultaneously, “‘That was surreal.’ And we nodded because we know the feeling.”
Trump snubbed the annual dinner last year, the first time a President skipped the Washington tradition since 1981 when Reagan was recovering from an assassination attempt. Even then, Reagan called in to make a few jokes.
While Trump wasn’t there to land any punchlines, Wolf, who previously wrote for “Late Night With Seth Meyers and has a stand-up special on HBO called “Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady,” delivered nearly 10 minutes of her own.
“You can’t shut me up as a woman … unless you are Michael Cohen and wire me $130,000,” she quipped. “You can find me on Venmo under my porn star name, Reince Priebus.”
“I did have a lot of jokes about Cabinet members, but I had to scrap all of those because everyone has been fired,” she said. “You guys are going through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”
Other jokes moved into more controversial territory, drawing a mixture of laughs and uncomfortable silence from the crowd.
Typically at the dinner the hosting entertainer roasts the president and the administration, and the president returns the gesture. Before Trump announced his candidacy, he attended the 2011 dinner, where President Barack Obama was at the head table and, along with comedian Seth Meyers, famously mocked Trump.
The White House correspondents’ dinner is known for being an A-list extravaganza, with exclusive parties hosted all weekend across the city. But the usual attendance of high-wattage Hollywood stars was subdued compared to the years when Obama was president, and several companies canceled their before- and after-parties this year.
Journalists from CNN, The New York Times, Reuters, and The Washington Post received various awards for journalistic excellence, news coverage on deadline, and excellence in coverage of subjects of significant national or local importance.