The White House correspondents’ dinner is a fixture of the Washington scene, a spring event at which the cream of political journalism shares bonhomie, fine food and comedy roasting with the politicians it reports on – including the president. Under Donald Trump, however, the dinner is facing uncertainty.
Trump, who has repeatedly attacked “the very dishonest press” and accused leading news outlets of peddling “fake news” about him, is expected nonetheless to attend the dinner, at the Washington Hilton on 29 April.
Many news outlets, however, are planning to give the event a miss. The New York Times has not sent journalists to the dinner since 2008. The Guardian, which normally attends, will not be represented there this year. Jeff Mason, a Reuters journalist and president of the WHCA, has been obliged to confirm that the event will happen.
Celebrities are also choosing to spend the night elsewhere. Actors from the casts of TV political drama shows such as House of Cards, Veep and Scandal, for example, have attended in recent years. They are not expected to be present this time. And according to the Hollywood Reporter, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has yet to secure a comedy headliner.
One comedian, Samantha Bee, will be dining on Washington on the night of 29 April. The Full Frontal host will be debuting what she declines to call a rival party, even though it is titled Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and is being held on the same night at the historic Willard Hotel, a block away from the White House.
Over the years, the dinner has spawned a number of receptions and after-parties. Some of those are now being cancelled or losing co-hosts. Vanity Fair, for example, has pulled out of co-hosting a prestigious after-party, leaving Bloomberg to go it alone. The New Yorker has cancelled its curtain-raiser. It is reportedly unclear if MSNBC will hold its own traditional after-party, while ABC and Yahoo, which have previously co-hosted a pre-dinner reception, have not confirmed if they will do so this year.
“Discussions are under way … We’re just getting the ball rolling,” a source familiar with ABC’s thinking told the Guardian, while declining to elaborate.
CBS News and the Atlantic Monthly are still holding a pre-dinner reception. Christopher Isham, CBS Washington bureau chief and vice-president of news, said: “The dinner is a celebration of the first amendment and the role of a strong and independent press and has taken place for the past 89 years under both Democratic and Republican administrations. We see no reason for that to stop now.”
CNN, a favourite target for Trump, is expected to hold a Sunday brunch after the dinner and keep up a significant presence at the dinner itself.
‘There will be minimal celebrities’White House correspondents’ dinner: Obama’s best zingers
Whoever is eventually named as master of ceremonies for the dinner will have a chance to tease, needle or even roast the president, as Stephen Colbert famously did to a not-very amused George W Bush in 2006. And Trump will get a chance to reply in kind.
He may see a chance for revenge. Famously, in 2011 Barack Obama and TV host Seth Meyers roasted a stone-faced Trump, a guest at the dinner who was also a key champion of the widely debunked “birther” movement, which claimed Obama was not born in the US and thus ineligible to be president.
His audience may lack familiar faces. In the past, stars such as Scarlett Johansson, and Kerry Washington and the cast of Game of Thrones have been guests at the sprawling, ticketed dinner in the Hilton ballroom, which seats 2,670. This year, an unnamed Washington media executive was quoted as saying “there will be minimal celebrities in that room … it’s going to be difficult to get any talent there”.
The gulf between the traditionally more liberal-leaning household names of show business and Trump the brash populist was evident at Trump’s inauguration in January. An open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial the day before the inaugural celebrations was attended by Trump and his wife, Melania. It featured no A-list stars.
On the day itself, the formation dancing troupe the Rockettes were engulfed in controversy about whether members wanted to dance. One of the headliners was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, though not all of its members were happy to perform.
That was followed by an incendiary row between the administration and the media about the fact that the crowds were smaller at Trump’s 2017 inauguration than at Obama’s in 2008. Relations between the White House and the press have not improved since.
Occasionally, presidents don’t turn up to the dinner. In modern times that included Richard Nixon in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Ronald Reagan in 1981. (Reagan had recently been shot).
Nonetheless, it is believed that a significant boycott by journalists of the White House correspondents’ dinner would be a rare event indeed.
Ultimately, should attendance prove depleted, there could be one positive for Trump to try to draw. He has repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington. That may be a promise so far unfulfilled, as he has packed his cabinet with plutocrats and insiders, but the correspondents’ dinner has become a symbol of Washington-insider excess.
The giant, jostling and glitzy bash has come to be broadcast live, spilling over into a weekend of events at which journalists mingle with the lobbyists, politicians and corporations they are supposed to keep at arm’s length. Concurrently, many in the media have felt a growing discomfort.
A more sober White House correspondents’ dinner is in prospect, and not just because Donald Trump is teetotal.