“I would come next year, absolutely,” he told a group of Reuters reporters, including the then-president of the WHCA, Jeff Mason.
Now there is some talk in Washington and Hollywood that Trump will follow through and actually go to the event, the surreal mix of Washington politicos and celebrity that is the highest-profile of a series of news media banquet dinners in the spring in D.C. Some of Trump’s friends hope that he does.
The White House has not commented on whether Trump will go, and the executive director of the WHCA, Steve Thomma, declined to comment.
But Trump’s presence, coming after another year in which he has consistently railed against the “fake news” media, would make for an unusual and even awkward evening. It also would have an impact on which entertainer ultimately agrees to perform.
The usual choices — from the ranks of late-night comics and Comedy Central celebrities — have may, in many ways, thrived in the Trump years, with a constant outpouring of humor and satire at the president’s expense.
The dinner is scheduled for April 28, at the same venue, the Washington Hilton.
It’s not just the WHCA dinner. The Gridiron Club, another D.C.-based journalism organization, is holding its annual dinner on March 3. It is a less high-profile event but more formal, and that group, too, is awaiting word on whether Trump will attend.
Last year, Trump announced in late February that he was skipping the WHCA dinner. On the night it was held, he did some counter-programming, as he attended a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., telling supporters that a “large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now. They are gathered together for the White House Correspondents Dinner without the president, and I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from the Washington swamp spending my evening with all of you.”
The celebrity turnout to the dinner was scant compared to the starry presence during the Obama years, and a number of news organizations, such as Time, People, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, canceled parties surrounding the weekend. The dinner itself included a comedian, Hasan Minhaj, but it also focused heavily on journalism and the First Amendment, with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein addressing the sold-out ballroom. A number who attended said that the lack of star power actually helped draw more serious attention to the press and its role Washington.
Most of the White House staff also declined to go to the dinner last year.
Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, said that he didn’t think there was much reason for Trump to go to the dinner this year.
“I don’t see any point,” he told Variety. “What would be accomplished by going? The dinner has turned into a night of Hollywood celebrities and bashing of Republicans. I don’t think it is time well spent, and I don’t think the optics are good.”
He was referring to the idea of Trump mingling with Washington’s insiders and media and Hollywood elite. “That is not who he came to Washington to represent,” Spicer said.
Last year, he said, Trump was pretty clear that he would not go. “When the decision was brought to him, he didn’t hesitate. He made it very clear what his intentions were.”
The purpose of the WHCA Dinner is to raise money for scholarships and to hand out annual awards to White House journalists.
Spicer said, “You can be pro-free press, pro-First Amendment, but that is not what this dinner is about.” He said that it was a “bit of a fallacy” to say that the dinner is to raise money for scholarships. “Let’s be honest for what it is — a big party for Hollywood celebrities and liberals,” he said.
During the Obama years, it gained a much higher profile, as Hollywood celebrities flocked to Washington for the weekend as guests of media organizations. E! and “Entertainment Tonight” covered the red carpet, and Trump himself attended the dinner.
Most famously, Trump’s appearance in 2011 came just as he was considering entering the 2012 presidential race, as he went on a campaign in which he questioned whether President Obama was really born in the United States. At the dinner, Obama devoted a great part of his time onstage to telling jokes about Trump, tied to his tenure as the star of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Last year, Trump was the first president to skip the dinner since Ronald Reagan, who was still recovering from an assassination attempt in 1981. According to Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” staffers worried that Trump didn’t have the self-deprecating sense of humor to pull off such a dinner appearance.
Ari Fleischer, press secretary under President George W. Bush, does not think that Trump should go. One reason is that the dinner “has become way too grand and vainglorious. It is such a trumped up Washington celebration of itself, co-joined with Hollywood,” that has “gotten away from its original mission,” including its awarding of scholarships.
The other reason, Fleischer said, is that “the press doesn’t like the president, and the president doesn’t like the press, so why pretend?”
Mike McCurry, press secretary under President Bill Clinton, said via email that most presidents “moan, groan, scowl, and scorn about having to go to the dinner.” Clinton, he said, “certainly did.”
“And then they go home pleased with themselves and say they had a good time after all.”
With Trump, however, the “situation is different.”
“He has declared war on the press and calls them enemies of the people, even though he apparently likes some of them personally.”
“But the whole evening (and this includes things like the Gridiron) is supposed to end with some acknowledgement that the necessary adversarial relationship between the press and the President is still one that needs to proceed with good will, one side for the other,” McCurry added. “Trump does not have that appreciation of the Fourth Estate and the media, by and large, believes this guy has no business being president. That is not the foundation of a happy evening, so I believe Trump should not go.”
If Trump does attend, it will affect who ultimately agrees to entertain. Awkward as it may be, and as difficult as the gig is, one talent rep says that the presence of Trump would promise plenty of attention. “It might even encourage them, and make them want to do it.”