If anyone was tuning in to this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner for some simple jokes about the President, they got a lot more than they bargained for.
Michelle Wolf started off her hosting gig by fast-forwarding through the kinds of jokes that usually pepper a White House Correspondents’ Dinner set, even skipping over the customary C-SPAN nod that the channel itself even highlighted earlier in the day.
Instead, the rest of her jokes, delivered to the gathered crowd at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, played no favorites and left no one exempt. Even after the White House Correspondents’ Association went out of its way to thank Trump Administration officials for attending, Wolf wasted no time going after former and current officials both in the room and elsewhere.
The jabs ranged from the tame (“Mike Pence is the kind of guy who brushes his teeth and drinks orange juice and thinks, ‘Mmmmm…’”) to the scathing, including a barrage against the White House’s representative on the dais, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“I love you as Aunt Lydia on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale'”). It was hard not to watch that salvo against someone sitting at arm’s length away and not think of Stephen Colbert’s infamous 2006 performance, which deflated the room in a similar way. (Sitting next to Sanders, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl looked decidedly unamused.)
Maybe by design, not all of Wolf’s jokes went over well with the audience. A “Match Game”-style call and response section separated the willing participants from the visibly annoyed. A joke about wanting Kellyanne Conway trapped under a tree seemed to make more than a few in the audience nervous. And specific jabs at Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC didn’t leave quite the same soft-punch-in-the-shoulder feeling the usual gags have in the past.
Not all the jokes with an unexpected aim were as piercing as those directed at Conway, Sanders, or Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough (“It’s like when a MeToo works out”). When cycling through jokes intended for the colleagues of people in the room, Wolf said, “Watching Rachel Maddow is like going to Target: You went in for milk and you came out with shampoo, candles, and the entire history of the Byzantine Empire.”
It’s the second consecutive year that the President has chosen not to attend the event, but like Hasan Minhaj did last year, Wolf had her share of Trump material to make up for it. But like her closing statement that “Flint still doesn’t have clean water,” her approach was more to say things that a WHCD host isn’t usually expected to say.
“People call Trump names all the time, and look I could call Trump a racist or misogynist or xenophobic or unstable or incompetent or impotent, but he’s heard all of those and he doesn’t care,” Wolf said in her setup for the “How broke is he?” section.
On a Democrat’s chances in the upcoming 2018 midterms: “You’re somehow going to lose by 12 points to a guy named Jeff Pedophile Nazi Doctor.”
The undercurrents of support for the political/cable-news press that went through Minhaj’s monologue at last year’s event were largely absent this year, especially when Wolf finished off her closing remarks.
“You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him. And if you’re gonna profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money because he doesn’t have any,” Wolf said.
Watch Wolf’s full hosting set below:
In contrast to last year’s opening, which used archival footage to highlight the history of tumultuous presidential/press corps relationships, the 2018 version looked to some help from the inside baseball of a WHCD-specific “Our Cartoon President” segment and a painfully awkward intro from outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan.
White House Correspondents’ Association President Margaret Telav, who appeared in the opening animated video, opened the evening by saluting student journalists and assembled press corps members. Before the events of the evening, she also called for a moment of silence to recognize journalists who had passed in the year previous and to honor Austin Tice, a freelance reporter still held captive in Syria.
Speaking to the stated purpose of the event, Talev addressed the ongoing remarks by the person whose notable absence continued to hang over the ballroom.
“We reject efforts by anyone, especially our elected leaders, to paint journalism as un-American. To undermine the trust between reporter and reader, or to cast doubt on the relevance of facts or truth in the modern age. An attack on any journalist is an attack on us all,” Talev said.
As to the sitting President once again returning to the annual event, Talev said, “That’s a tradition we believe will withstand” the current administration.