President Donald Trump frequently assails the media — or at least the journalists and organizations who paint him in an unfavorable light — as “fake news,” so it is no surprise that, for the second consecutive year, he skipped the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., sending White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as his lightning rod while he held an enthusiastic rally in, of all places, Washington, Mich.
Trump could not be reached for comment regarding whether the venue for the rally was chosen specifically so that he could tell the crowd, “I was invited to another event tonight, but I’d much rather be in Washington, Mich., than Washington, D.C.”
The president, addressing a fervent crowd of blue collar supporters, hammered home his greatest hits: deriding Democrats for everything from obstruction to corruption, lamenting about the state of immigration policy and border security, and blasting the “fake news” media.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., as the “fake news” media were mingling with politicians at the WHCD, comedian Michelle Wolf offered the antithesis to Trump’s showcase of his support outside of Washington — a take-no-prisoners indictment of the Washington insiders and members of the media who continue to allow Trump to be Trump, even as he holds the highest office in the land.
In one particularly polarizing moment, she lambasted Trump for being thin-skinned while holding him, as well as those in attendance, accountable for his history of sexism and “locker room talk,” saying:
“Of course, Trump isn’t here, if you haven’t noticed, he’s not here. And I know, I know, I would drag him here myself, but it turns out the president of the United States is the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab. He said it first, yeah he did. You remember? Good.”
Had Trump attended the dinner, he would have been on the receiving end of a punchline on 20 separate occasions.
Eight of these instances came via “Trump is so broke” jokes, in which Wolf roasts the president for his suspected misrepresentation of his net worth because, as she puts it, “I could call Trump a racist, or a misogynist, or xenophobic, or unstable, or incompetent, or impotent, but he’s heard all of those and he doesn’t care.”
Wolf opened her monologue with a reference to Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels, joking “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, ‘Let’s get this over with,’” before invoking embattled former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, saying, “and I know as much as some of you might want me to, it’s 2018 and I am a woman so you cannot shut me up — unless you have Michael Cohen wire me $130,000.”
She poked fun at Trump’s ties to Russia while recalling the shortcomings of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, saying, “it is kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan. It’s a direct flight; it’s so close.”
She criticized Trump’s ties to white nationalism, remarking:
“Trump is a racist, though. He loves white nationalist, which is a weird term for a Nazi. Calling a Nazi a white nationalist is like calling a pedophile a kid friend, or Harvey Weinstein a ladies’ man — which isn’t really fair, he also likes plants.”
Wolf followed up by going after Trump’s stance on gun control and his response to the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, while also addressing cuts in federal funding for education under the administration, saying:
“Trump’s also an ideas guy, he’s got loads of ideas, you’ve got to love him for that. He wants to give teachers guns, and I support that because then they can sell them for things they need, like supplies. That’s a lot of protractors.”
In her closing remarks, Wolf eviscerated the media for the nature of their relationship with Trump:
“You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.”
Early Sunday morning, the president shared his thoughts on Wolf’s monologue and the dinner as a whole:
Trump followed up that evening, declaring the dinner “DEAD” before calling for an end to the 97-year-old tradition.
In emphatic fashion, Trump lashed out at the WHCD again the following morning, declaring, “FAKE NEWS is alive and well and beautifully represented on Saturday night!”
Wolf’s monologue seemed out of place, due mostly in part to the vulgarity of her material — around three minutes in, she told the audience, “Should’ve done more research before you got me to do this” — but then again, Trump and his administration seem pretty out of place within the context of American politics, too.
Her takedown of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was particularly controversial, drawing criticism from both sides of the aisle. Maggie Haberman, a pulitzer-winning reporter who Trump has publicly criticized on Twitter, weighed in:
Critics zeroed in on Wolf’s alleged criticism of Sanders’ appearance, in which she said:
“I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies”
Mika Brzeinski, another reporter who has drawn Trump’s ire, demanded that the White House Correspondents’ Association issue an apology to Sanders, to which Wolf responded:
Lost in the media frenzy over a supposed attack on a woman’s appearance — a claim which Wolf refutes and, in all fairness, is nevertheless in line with the president’s behavioral standards — is that Wolf’s (factual) statement about Sanders’ proclivity for lying to the press represents only 37 of the 2439 words in the transcript of her monologue.
In fact, Sanders, who was seated on the stage and was the only member of the Trump administration in attendance besides Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, who Wolf accused of lying in order to defend the president during her television appearances, was the recipient of only four of Wolf’s punchlines.
Wolf’s monologue was not too pointed, nor was it too divisive. She was an equal opportunity offender taking to task everyone — republicans, democrats, cabinet members, Washington insiders, the president, and the media at large — who was complicit in the perversion of politics that gave rise to the current state of divisiveness and subjective truth that has poisoned our political discourse.
In response to the backlash, however, WHCA President Margaret Talev, issued a statement walking back the association’s support of Wolf:
The statement is indicative of an effort to salvage the ever-deteriorating relationship with the Trump administration, but the backtracking of the WHCA suggests that civility is more important than the freedom of the press that upholds our democracy:
“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.”
The correlation between Talev’s speech at the dinner, which embodied the spirit of the event and the mission of the WHCA, and Wolf’s monologue was especially striking — the WHCD was about promoting a sense of unity between the press and the administration and celebrating the first amendment, and Wolf’s roast and the ensuing responses illustrate just how divided the country is while highlighting the importance of a free, but still factual and objective press that will “speak truth to power”.
Sure, maybe the language and tone Wolf employed in her monologue weren’t appropriate for a black tie affair, but we should be discussing her political commentary rather than her delivery. All that does is distract us from the real issue — the administration’s utter lack of transparency.