Trump skipped the dinner, but was at a rally in Washington, Michigan.
His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, sat at the head table at the D.C. event, as Wolf went through a series of blistering barbs that included jokes aimed at her and Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the president, who also attended.
Trump tweeted, “While Washington, Michigan, was a big success, Washington, D.C., just didn’t work. Everyone is talking about the fact that the White House Correspondents Dinner was a very big, boring bust…the so-called comedian really ‘bombed.’ [Greg Gutfeld] should host next year! [Pete Hegseth]”
Some of Wolf’s jokes were met with laughs in the Washington Hilton ballroom, in particular a joke about Jake Tapper. “I know there’s a lot of people who want me to talk about Russia and Putin and collusion, but I’m not gonna do that — because there’s a lot of liberal media here and I’ve never wanted to know what any of you look like when you orgasm. Except for you, Jake Tapper.”
But there were other moments that attendees thought were uncomfortable and unfair. Those included jokes aimed at Sanders, who was sitting just a few steps away from Wolf, and was stone faced at some of the scathing humor.
“I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders. You know? Is it Sarah Sanders, is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is it Auntie Huckabee Sanders? What’s Uncle Tom, but for white women who disappoint other white women?”
Maggie Haberman, the New York Times White House correspondent who was among the evening’s award winners, tweeted that Sanders “sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.” Her colleague, Peter Baker, wrote, “Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.”
Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, WHCA president Margaret Talev said, “Michelle Wolf is a comedian, and she speaks for herself, and she has a right to do it. The press corps speaks for itself.” But she added that her “only regret, to some extent is that those 15 minutes” of Wolf’s monologue will define the four-hour event. That included Talev’s own speech, in which she shared the story of her late father, a Bulgarian immigrant, who left his friends and family in the Communist country to come to the United States, with its freedom of dissent.
She added that it was “a night about free speech,” and that “by tradition, we do not vet the monologue.” She said that it was her hope that the event would be one of unity in a common goal of celebrating the First Amendment, but acknowledged that with the controversy over Wolf, “we night have fallen short of that goal.”
“I am concerned people not take away the wrong message from this,” she said, pointing to another guest at the dinner, Aya Hijazi, who credited the free press in the United States with helping to win her release as a political prisoner in Egypt.
Sanders stayed at the event afterward and posed for pictures and selfies with attendees. Later, at the MSNBC After Party, held at the Art Museum of the Americas, she got hugs from Gary Cohn, Trump’s former top economic adviser. She said that she was “fine,” but also said that she was concerned that Wolf’s routine would dominate the reporting on the event, which was otherwise focused on the First Amendment and press freedom.
Wolf countered the criticism on Twitter, with a message back to Haberman.
“Hey mags! All these jokes were about her despicable behavior. Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though?” she wrote.
Wolf attended a party afterward at the Riggsby, a D.C. eatery, and when she arrived she was greeted by irreverent chants of, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” by a crowd of friends and others, including representatives from Netflix. She will host a new weekly series for the streaming platform starting next month, called “The Break with Michelle Wolf.”
The WHCA and its president did not see Wolf’s jokes beforehand. Past comedians who have taken the gig have said it is difficult, given the venue, the crowd and the scrutiny. Some attendees said that they wished that Wolf would have adopted one of the mottos of another humor-laced press dinner, the Gridiron, which is “singe, not burn.”
Wolf’s performance recalled some of the reaction that ensued after Stephen Colbert entertained at the 2006 dinner. Then, Colbert gave a blistering monologue aimed at President George W. Bush, who was sitting in the room. It created enough of a controversy that the choice of an entertainer the following year was much safer: Rich Little.
Wolf also reacted to another criticism, from former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. He called the event a “disgrace.” Wolf responded, “Thank you!”
Mika Brzezinski also criticized her roast, writing, “Watching a wife and mother be criticized 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.”
Wolf responded, asking, “Why are you guys making this about Sarah’s looks? I said she burns facts and uses the ash to create a *perfect* smoky eye. I complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials.”
The ballroom this year was filled to capacity, even without Trump and free of the parade of Hollywood celebrities who typically made the trek to D.C. during the Obama years. Among those who did attend this year were Jordan Klepper, host of “The Opposition on Comedy Central,” and Kathy Griffin, a guest of the Washington Blade, whose career is recovering after she lost work and concert gigs over posing for photos with a fake severed Trump head. She later apologized, but said that she got a visit from the Secret Service as well as death threats.
The Hill’s Judy Kurtz asked for Griffin’s take on Wolf shortly after it ended. “It’s so ironic — like Sarah Huckabee Sanders sitting there and having to take it was just heaven,” Griffin said.
Jon Favreau, one of the principals in Pod Save America and former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, faulted the focus in the aftermath of the event.
“Comedian ends comedy dinner by saying that Flint still doesn’t have clean water, an attempt to point out Washington’s continued neglect of people who need help. Washington responds with a rigorous debate about the tone and civility of the comedian’s jokes. Perfect.”
Update: Talev issued a statement late on Sunday.
“I want to tell you how much your kind words meant to me following my personal remarks at last night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner about the roots of my belief in journalism’s essential role.
“I also have heard from members expressing dismay with the entertainer’s monologue and concerns about how it reflects on our mission. Olivier Knox, who will take over this summer as our president, and I, recognize these concerns and are committed to hearing from members on your views on the format of the dinner going forward. Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.
“Every day we are working hard to advocate for our members and ensure coverage that benefits the public, and the dinner is an important opportunity to highlight and maintain our essential work. The White House Correspondents’ Association remains dedicated to that mission.”
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