His voters sent him to Washington to break stuff, and this weekend Donald Trump tried to break the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association. As with some of his business ventures, he was not wholly successful.
“They’re trapped at the dinner,” the president boomed at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., celebrating his first 100 days in office. “Which will be very, very boring.”
Instead, it was just fine. It happened. There’s an inertia to these Washington traditions, and a determination to soldier on in the face of — whatever it is we’re facing. Everyone survived this weekend without the president, or without the crush of Hollywood celebrities who for years had been decorating the dinner in ever-increasing density, until now.
It was a bit like an off-year high school reunion: diminished numbers and fewer crazy stories but still no shortage of hors d’oeuvres and dancing and gossip. Everyone settled for sightings of Michael Steele and Debbie Dingell instead of Jon Hamm or a Kardashian. In past years, virtually the entire cast of “Modern Family” would come to the dinner; this year, United Talent Agency only secured the kid who plays Luke.
“This is the way it used to be, way back when,” said veteran PR maven Janet Donovan at a Saturday morning brunch held under a white tent at the Georgetown home of hotelier Connie Milstein. This year there was actually room to mingle without toppling a stick-thin starlet. There were no Silicon Valley entrepreneurs monologuing at the bloody mary bar.
Was it only a year ago that Barack Obama dropped the mic, literally, at his final correspondents’ dinner, as if to put an exclamation point on eight years of media savvy and pop-culture propaganda? He knew his role in this circus. It was Obama’s yearly chance to inspire a meme, rib a rival, come off as folksy royalty, remind the public that the media was not the enemy. His cool factor iced out the haters, smudged away red lines, papered over unkept promises. Afterward, the French ambassador’s mansion would swell with swells — both conservatives and liberals, all buddy-buddy in private, united by the daytime charade they pulled off together on TV.
Things are a bit different now. Trump knows how to entertain but he has developed his own traditions, and it involves relentlessly mocking the media, not laughing with it, not even for a one-night black-tie cease-fire.
“A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now,” the president told about 7,000 fans at the not-quite-full arena in Harrisburg.
This was only two-thirds true. There were vanishingly few Hollywood actors at the dinner in the basement of the Washington Hilton (Matthew Modine! Alan Ruck!) but the press was indeed settling for a consolation prize. Journalists communed with journalists in a stalwart and tipsy celebration of the First Amendment — and, of course, themselves.
The guest list suffered not because Trump sent his regrets but, more likely, because of the chance he might attend; he remains dauntingly unpopular with the New York and Hollywood A-list that he had long aspired to join. The pre-dinner receptions, hosted by outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, were staid and perfunctory, absent the usual angling for a sighting of a “Game of Thrones” star.
The thirst for starpower was so intense that the rumor of a Leonardo DiCaprio appearance spread like bird flu. (Yes, he was spotted in town for the Climate March protest earlier in the day, but he was spotted again, hours before the dinner, headed for the next plane out of town.)
Madeleine Albright, in a red gown pinned with a typewriter brooch, ended up being the closest thing to a bona fide star, dominating all the selfies of media-political Washington’s Twitter feed.
Tickets for the occasion, in other words, were unusually within the realm of obtainability.
“This is the first time in 20 years I’ve found parking in the hotel,” said columnist Clarence Page.
“I think the guys from the mailroom are here,” said one network producer.
The dinner itself featured a dutiful pep talk by Watergate legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
“Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” Woodward said from the dais, and the media elite applauded.
“CNN and MSNBC are fake news,” Trump said in Pennsylvania, and some of the 97 percent who say they’d still vote for him applauded.
Two worlds, talking past each other, from 100 miles apart. The latest prime-time iteration of POTUS vs. Beltway.
But look! There was one emissary of Trump’s inner circle hitting the circuit in Washington, and a Cabinet member at that. On Friday evening, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis mingled under a poolside tent at the home of Atlantic owner David Bradley. On the menu: beef tenderloin and North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test.
“Some advice to people at dinner,” Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg told the crowd as the news of the test spread. “If Jim Mattis leaves suddenly, we’re gonna move the party to the basement.”
While Trump headed out of town, his opponents retrenched. Tens of thousands of protesters had clogged Pennsylvania Avenue in the disgusting midday heat to raise alarm about global warming. Comedian Samantha Bee, one of Trump’s fiercest critics, staged a rogue event for the younger crowd at DAR Constitution Hall titled “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
“As much as I love poking at the media,” Bee said, addressing journalists, “I know your job has never been harder: You basically get paid to stand in a cage while a geriatric orangutan gets to scream at you. It’s like a reverse zoo.”
After Bee’s event, an elite slice of her audience took over the rooftop of the W Hotel, with its clear view of the snipers atop the White House, and ate brie sliders and creme-brulee doughnuts. “Trump is like a flashlight shining into dark corners and all the cockroaches are coming out,” said actress Chloe Bennett, of the ABC series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
A few poor souls held signs supporting the media outside the Hilton. “Keep up the good work,” said one. Inside, after Woodward and Bernstein’s civics lesson on the free press, “Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj did not spare the absentee president in his keynote roast.
“The leader of our country is not here,” Minhaj said. “That’s because he lives in Moscow. It’s a very long flight. . . . As for the other guy, I think he’s in Pennsylvania, because he can’t take a joke.”
BuzzFeed’s party at a U Street bar that reeked of onions and tequila, was not showing the dinner on television. Guests instead guzzled “Spicey” margaritas with blue curacao and stumbled to Daft Punk and Bruno Mars. No one seemed to be over 40, and no one seemed to care what was happening at the Hilton.
“We are not fake news,” reiterated Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, as BuzzFeed capitalized on that very epithet by giving away “Failing Pile of Garbage” T-shirts — a reference to a Trump put-down.
As Saturday turned into Sunday, TV journalists and professional pundits began to ascend a grand staircase to the gorgeous salon of the Organization of American States on 17th Street near the Mall. This was NBC and MSNBC’s after-party, so the boldfaced names were almost exclusively on-air talent: Dana Bash, Don Lemon, Chris Matthews, Thomas Roberts, Nicolle Wallace. Crystal chandeliers hung over arching palm trees and white-jacketed servers passed iceberg salad bites and tiny takeout boxes of General Tso’s chicken.
Back at the Hilton, though, a less-exclusive after-party, sponsored by Thomson-Reuters, was packed to the gills and vibrating with energy, without a single famous face. It was vintage Nerd Prom — couples awkwardly dancing to Wham! while juggling their martini glasses. Journalism survived to drink another day, and so did this party, for now anyway.
Staff writers Emily Heil, Elahe Izadi, Maura Judkis, Ellen McCarthy, Lavanya Ramanathan, Roxanne Roberts, Margaret Sullivan and Ben Terris contributed to this report.