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What the White House Correspondents’ Dinner will do in Trump’s absence

Washington, DC’s most glamorous weekend, explained.

101st Annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is happening again Saturday, and it’ll be, well, something else. For the past eight years, the dinner has marked a weekend of celeb-studded parties feting President Barack Obama (and, nominally, the press). But with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, the forecast is decidedly less glamorous — starting with the main event, which is expected to strike a more serious tone this year in the absence of its guest of honor.

President Trump, who is supposed to be the star of the night, announced in February that he would not attend, breaking a longtime Washington tradition. (The last president to skip the dinner was Ronald Reagan, who was recovering from a gunshot wound to the lung.) Instead, Trump plans hold a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By the time journalists and politicians and celebrities assemble at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, the president will be 120 miles away, celebrating his first 100 days in office with some of his most fervent supporters.

It’s not hard not to read the trip, which Trump announced just last Saturday, as an effort to counterprogram a weekend traditionally devoted to celebrating political journalists — a group with whom the president has repeatedly clashed throughout this past year. Trump often complains about his negative coverage, and once called the media the “enemy of the American people.”

Trump has an awkward history with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that reaches back to 2011, when he was subjected to a humiliating roast by President Obama. According to one narrative (which Trump disputes), that evening was a formative moment for the hotel mogul, inflaming his political ambitions and setting him on a path that would eventually lead to him the White House.

The dinner, which is a fundraiser that usually takes in $700,000 for the White House Correspondents’ Association and its scholarships, will continue in Trump’s absence. The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj is the host this year. Minhaj, the son of Muslim immigrants from India, is expected to deliver the traditional comedy set, which includes a roast of the president. But in place of lighthearted remarks from Trump, Watergate journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are scheduled to speak. They plan to talk about “the First Amendment and the importance of aggressive but fair reporting,” Woodward said to the Washington Post.

So the mood is expected to be a touch less frothy — more “democracy dies in darkness” than Saturday Night Live. In February, WHCA president Jeff Mason said in a statement that the dinner “has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic.”

For a long time, of course, the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has been much more than just a dinner with the president — there is usually a parade of brunches, parties, and afterparties stretching from midweek through Sunday. In the Obama era, Hollywood stars became a regular presence at these events. But this year, everything is pared back. Many of the glitziest events, including the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair party, which last year drew the likes of Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry Washington, and DJ Khaled, have been canceled.

The WHCA dinner and its attendant glamfests have long been criticized for fostering uncomfortably close relationships between the press, the president, the wealthy, and the famous. This weekend is a symbol of what many people hate about Washington: its chummy elite networks and its denizens who reflexively kowtow to the powerful. All of this is a caricature of what Washington is really like, of course — but the dinner is a bad look for a city that many Americans are already suspicious of.

Running as an outsider candidate, Trump often promised to “drain the swamp,” which is a metaphor for cleansing Washington of its corporate, back-scratchy insideriness. By and large, Trump has not made much progress on that front — consider, for instance, his Cabinet of plutocrats or his eagerness to exempt his own people from federal ethics rules.

But this corner of the swamp, at least, seems to be a little less mucky than before.

Being a White House correspondent is a little different under Trump

A White House correspondent is a journalist who covers the president and his or her administration. In practice, White House correspondents write about everything from important meetings with world leaders to the president's choice of dog.

Many consider being a White House correspondent a top job in political journalism. Some famous past and present White House correspondents include Jake Tapper of CNN, the late Helen Thomas, NBC News's Chuck Todd, CBS's Major Garrett, ABC's Jonathan Karl, and the New York Times's Helene Cooper.

This is a high-profile gig, in part, thanks to fictional representations of national politics, which have often centered on the dramas between the White House and its press corps. In the Netflix TV series House of Cards, Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) serves as White House correspondent for the fictional Washington Herald (and is terrorized by politician Frank Underwood). On the political drama The West Wing, Greg Brock (Sam Robards) is the New York Times's White House correspondent, and becomes a big part of the sixth season's storyline. On Scandal, James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky) serves for a period as the chief White House correspondent for the (fictional) DC Times.

The White House Correspondents' Association is the organization that represents the White House press corps. It is in charge of administrative matters like assigning seats to reporters during press conferences, deciding which news agencies get workspace in the White House, and determining which media organizations are part of the corps and gain access to the president. The organization is consulted about the composition and rotation of the White House press pool, the smaller group of journalists who travel with the president and follow his moves around the clock.

Trump has a famously contentious relationship with the press. On the campaign trail last year, he frequently described mainstream outlets as “very dishonest!” and “so totally biased.” During the transition, there was some concern that Trump would eliminate the press pool entirely. He frequently ditched the reporters assigned to follow him — at one point sneaking out in the middle of the evening for a steakhouse dinner. (Reporters waited hours from behind a dumpster.)

The relationship eventually smoothed out. Trump officials assured the WHCA that they would continue the tradition of cooperating with the press pool, allowing them to shadow the president in his public appearances.

After some friction, the administration also agreed to continue the tradition of holding its daily press briefings in the West Wing of the White House. Trump officials had wanted to move the briefings to a bigger room offsite so there would be more space for non-mainstream journalists. They compromised by creating virtual “Skype seats” that allowed reporters outside DC to teleconference into the briefing and ask questions.

These days, the daily press briefings, which are led by press secretary Sean Spicer, have become some of the most-watched moments in daytime television. Spicer often spars with journalists, once ordering April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks to “stop shaking your head." Trump apparently approves of Spicer’s tactics. According to the Washington Post, Trump praised his press secretary last month for getting people to tune in: “I’m not firing Sean Spicer. That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.”

Spicer also makes a point of calling on alternative media outlets, like Breitbart and the Daily Caller. This has left some mainstream outlets feeling snubbed. “During the Obama administration, we were called on during nearly every press briefing,” CNN’s Jim Acosta told Politico recently. “During this administration, we have gone four briefings in a row without a question.”

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner started with a president who liked the press

The White House Correspondents’ Association itself was founded in 1914 when Woodrow Wilson, displeased by the way he was being quoted, threatened to cease giving press conferences at the White House altogether. The association didn't succeed in lobbying him; Wilson eventually canceled the regularly scheduled press conferences in 1915, and they weren't brought back until Warren Harding, a newspaper publisher himself, took office in 1921.

Unlike Wilson, Harding had a more candid relationship with journalists. Leonard Ray Teel, a professor of communication, described Harding's cozy relationship with journalists in his book The Public Press, 1900-1945: The History of American Journalism:

…the trade journal Editor & Publisher said no president before him had such "mutually frank and satisfactory contacts with the reporters.” The correspondents who controlled congressional press accreditation adopted a resolution that "no finer contact of genuine understand and sympathy ever was established between an American president and the newspapermen."

According to the WHCA, the first official WHCD was born out of Harding's relationship with the press. As National Journal's George Condon writes, "One of [Harding’s] first acts as president had been throwing a dinner for the correspondents who had covered his campaign in Marion, Ohio. Now, it was time to reciprocate."

Even though he had a good relationship with the press, Harding did not attend any of the three dinners held in his honor during his presidency. A number of his aides — including personal secretary George Christian and Secretary of Labor James Davis — attended the first dinner in his stead.

In 1924, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend one of these dinners. "Every president since Calvin Coolidge has attended the dinner at least once during their time in office but in recent decades it’s become mandatory participation for the commander-in-chief," explains White House Correspondents Insider, a site dedicated solely to the dinner and events surrounding it.

The most recent president to miss a dinner was Ronald Reagan in 1981, who at the time was at Camp David recovering from a gunshot wound. Before that, Jimmy Carter skipped two dinners, in 1978 and 1980. Nixon, who was eventually brought down by the press, only went every other year, skipping 1970, 1972, and 1974 (also the year he resigned due to the Watergate scandal).

The WHCD has become less about journalists and more about the guests

Once upon a time, the White House Correspondents' Dinner was fairly unglamorous. The people who attended it were mostly journalists, and the event functioned more or less like any other annual meeting of a professional group. That said, the event has always had a rowdy streak. In the 1920s, the dinners often ended in music and singing — one newspaper, according to the WHCA, described the 1922 event as “an occasion of much gayety and enthusiasm.”

Today, the WHCD is less about the journalists and more about the famous guests. News organizations, which buy the seats, invite A-list stars and top government officials. Most actual DC journalists — even the White House correspondents themselves — can’t get a ticket.

Before the dinner, which takes place every year in the windowless ballroom of the Washington Hilton hotel, many guests attend cocktail hours sponsored by various news outlets (and other corporate interests).

The president typically makes a few light jokes (at some of the dinners held during his two terms, President Obama joked about his name and his birth certificate), and is followed by a comedian who gets to be a bit more glib and bit more ruthless. The proceedings are broadcast on C-SPAN.

The event has been around for more than 80 years, so it's impossible to be exhaustive, but here are a few highlights:

  • 1921: The first White House Correspondents' Dinner.
  • 1930: The dinner is canceled for the first time, when Chief Justice William Howard Taft died on the morning of the dinner.
  • 1942: The dinner is canceled a second time, because of America's entry into World War II.
  • 1962: Thanks to Helen Thomas and President John F. Kennedy, women are finally allowed to attend.
  • 1978: President Jimmy Carter skips the WHCD, "marking the first time in the modern era the first lady, the vice president, and the president are all absent," National Journal reported.
  • 1981: President Ronald Reagan misses the WHCD because he is recovering from a gunshot wound, the result of an assassination attempt a few weeks earlier. Reagan calls in to the dinner from Camp David, quipping to the assembled journalists: “Well, I'm looking forward to the next news conference. I have so many questions to ask you all.”
  • 1983: The dinners adopt the one-man/one-woman roast-style format where the president's funny speech is followed by a comedian who makes fun of the president as well as his opponents. Comedian Mark Russell inaugurates this style of WHCD, which remains the format to this day.
  • 1993: Barbra Streisand attends the WHCD, which features comedian Elayne Boosler. Babs changes the game and makes it cool for celebrities to start attending.
  • 1993: The dinner sells out for the first time. Attendance hits 2,500.
  • 2000: President Bill Clinton masterfully uses a preproduced video to show his "final days," and challenges future presidents to up their game.
  • 2006: Stephen Colbert's roast of George W. Bush goes viral.
  • 2010: Kim Kardashian attends the WHCD as the guest of Greta Van Susteren.
  • 2011: Obama delivers a humorous speech while the Osama bin Laden raid is happening. He refuses to make a joke about bin Laden. Donald Trump is in attendance, a guest of the Washington Post.
  • 2017: Trump becomes the first president to miss the WHCD since Reagan in 1981.

Modern WHCDs have revolved around roast-style humor

In the past few years the WHCD has centered on speeches by the president and a comedian that poke fun at the president, his opponents, and whoever else may be in the room. Some people (usually anyone who is not the president) laugh a bit harder than others. Here are three times the comedian delivered the laughs (some of them a little more uncomfortable than others):

2006: Stephen Colbert issued a vicious takedown on George W. Bush, and the press corps barely chuckled:

2011: Seth Meyers roasted Donald Trump with this insult: “Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed that he was running as a joke.”

2016: Larry Wilmore delivered a controversial set that focused on race in America:

In retrospect, the most memorable moment in recent years was Obama’s lengthy ribbing of Donald Trump in 2011. Trump had promoted rumors that Obama was not an American citizen — and in return, Obama delivered several jokes at Trump’s expense at the 2011 WHCD:

And I know just the guy to do it — Donald Trump is here tonight! Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?

But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example — no, seriously — just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.

Say what you will about Mr. Trump, he certainly would bring some change to the White House. Let’s see what we’ve got up there.

(Screens show “Trump White House Resort and Casino.”)

That night, Trump appeared to grimace through all the insults. But the next morning on Fox & Friends, he claimed to have enjoyed the evening.

It was fun. And I enjoyed it. And I left and I told the press — they all said, did you have a good time? And I said it was fantastic. The next day I read, “Donald Trump felt terrible about the evening.” I loved the evening. I had a great time.

Nevertheless, there is a running theory among certain members of the press that the 2011 dinner supercharged Trump’s political ambitions. As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik speculated in 2015: “And one can’t help but suspect that, on that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back — perhaps even pursue the Presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself.”

Don’t call it “nerd prom,” please

Some journalists like think of themselves as being deeply nerdy, dorky, weird, or wonky. And the WHCD gets a lot of reporters into one place, all cleaned up and crisply dressed — which is why the event has gotten the nickname "nerd prom." It’s the ultimate humblebrag.

But in the past decade, there have been fewer nerds and more celebrities coming to the dinner, and some say that the name no longer fits. "It's time to concede that the White House Correspondents' Association dinner doesn't have much to do with the White House and its correspondents anymore," the Washington Post's Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger argued in 2009. "Forget about that cute, self-deprecating 'nerd prom' image — sorry, but nerds can't get into the parties anymore."

While A-listers have been attending at least since Barbra Streisand in 1993, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner became particularly star-studded under Obama, a Democratic president who was popular among Hollywood types. Many celebrities helped with his campaigns — tastemakers like Anna Wintour, stars such as George Clooney, and media moguls like Harvey Weinstein.

In the past decade, the event has gotten noticeably more glamorous. Last year’s dinner included A-listers like Will Smith, Shonda Rhimes, Kendall Jenner, and Aretha Franklin. More and more, these celebrities seem to have squeezed out the traditional guests at this dinner — journalists and politicians.

This year will be different not only because Trump will be absent but also because the number of preparties and afterparties has declined, making the weekend less of a draw for the denizens of Hollywood. Many see this as a positive change, a return to the WHCD’s roots as a gathering of journalists.

Word is that tickets to this year’s main event are easier to snag. “That’s an issue we’ve had to deal with, where people who cover the White House didn’t always get invited to the dinner,” WHCA president Jeff Mason told the Washington Post recently. “This year, I haven’t heard of that being a problem.”

The case for and against the White House Correspondents' Dinner

The sharpest critique of the White House Correspondents' Dinner is that it blurs — or fully dissolves — the boundaries between journalists and the political establishment. Detractors say that journalists should not be laughing or partying with the president. They should be asking him hard questions.

The New York Times has not participated in the event since 2007. That was the year Frank Rich, then a columnist for the Times, wrote a scathing critique of the dinner, casting it as the most visible symbol of the press’s failure to rigorously cover the presidency:

After last weekend’s correspondents’ dinner, The Times decided to end its participation in such events. But even were the dinner to vanish altogether, it remains but a yearly televised snapshot of the overall syndrome. The current White House, weakened as it is, can still establish story lines as fake as "Mission Accomplished" and get a free pass.

In 2011, Dean Baquet, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, explained to the New York Observer that the dinner "had evolved into a very odd, celebrity-driven event that made it look like the press and government all shuck their adversarial roles for one night of the year, sing together (literally, by the way).”

Baquet, who is now the executive editor of the Times, added, “It just feels like it sends the wrong signal to our readers and viewers, like we are all in it together and it is all a game. It feels uncomfortable."

Longtime NBC anchor Tom Brokaw came out against the dinner in 2012. “If there's ever an event that separates the press from the people that they're supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” he said that year on Meet the Press. Brokaw later told Politico that seeing Lindsay Lohan show up to the dinner that year was the last straw for him:

I thought, “This is one of the issues that we have to address. What kind of image do we present to the rest of the country? Are we doing their business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?” And what comes through the screen on C-SPAN that night is the latter, and not the former.

Other critiques have been blunter. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan called the event "the single most revolting annual gathering of pseudojournalistic cocksuckery in all the land."

In 2006, Stephen Colbert (in character) used the event itself to make many of these criticisms, arguing that White House correspondents weren't doing their job and that this jolly dinner was just adding to that. He said:

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction!

That didn't go over well with the audience, who for the most part fell silent as Colbert laid into them.

Some attendees believe the concerns about the event are overblown. "As a former White House Correspondent, it’s really nice for people in politics and media to come together and have a little weekend of fun," MSNBC host Alex Wagner told Politico in 2013. "I understand the idea of the 'celebrification' of the event but I think it’s more of a testament to how interesting and compelling Washington politics is to the outside world."

Besides, for all the bad press it’s gotten over the years, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner offers a public service: It’s a rare chance for people to see another side of the president and the first family. One highlight of the 2005 dinner was first lady Laura Bush elbowing aside her husband at the podium to deliver her own roast. “He’s usually in bed by now,” she said. “I’m not kidding. I said to him the other day, ‘George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you’re going to have to stay up later.’”

Early in his first term, Obama used his WHCD speeches to burnish his image as a sharp — and occasionally witty — politician. He landed more than a few zingers, including this read of Sen. John Boehner: “He is a person of color. Although not a color that appears in the natural world. What’s up, John?”

The event isn’t just a public relations stunt, either. It also provides an alternative venue for the president to confront his critics. At last year’s dinner, comedian Larry Wilmore drew attention to Obama’s policy on overseas drone attacks with the following riff:

Saw you hanging out with NBA players like Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors. That was cool. That was cool, yeah. You know it kinda makes sense, too, because both of you like raining down bombs on people from long distances, right?

This year, Trump will be 120 miles away by the time the dinner commences. They’ll still make jokes about him, but he won’t be there to listen.