Critic's Notebook: The Trump-Free White House Correspondents' Dinner Was Scathing, If Not Always Funny

After saying that he had been told not to, comedian Hasan Minhaj savaged Trump and his administration.

We now know the answer to the question, “What if you gave a White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the president doesn’t come?” It feels something like the desultory affair that took place Saturday night. Donald Trump was too cowardly to face the music, since things didn’t go so well for him the last time he attended. Instead he decamped to Harrisburg, Pa., a town in which he wouldn’t have been caught dead prior to running for president, to bask in the glory of his supporters. It was the first time in 36 years that a president didn’t attend, but Ronald Reagan at least had the good excuse of recovering from an assassination attempt.

There was plenty of self-affirmation from the Fourth Estate during the evening, but the rhetoric had the desperate feel of a hostage victim begging for his life. Jeff Mason, the organization’s president, declared at the beginning, “We are here to celebrate the press, not the presidency.” But his subsequent boast that the event had sold out demonstrated just how shell-shocked journalists have become faced with a president who defines success only in monetary or ratings terms.

“We have worked very hard to build a constructive relationship with his press team,” Mason told the crowd, adding that it was “very good.” But just as you began to think that he was "doth protest"-ing too much, Mason shifted gears. “We are not fake news … we are not the enemy of the American people,” he announced, receiving a standing ovation. “An attack on any of us is an attack on all of us. We must remain vigilant. The world is watching.” The sentiments were noble, but they conveyed an unbecoming insecurity, like a blind date apologizing at dinner for eating too much. By the time Mason actually read the text of the First Amendment — to a roomful of journalists, no less — you wanted to reach out and comfort him.

Some had speculated that Alec Baldwin would make an appearance in his Trump persona, and he did. But it wasn’t exactly a show-stopper. Announced as a “surprise,” it consisted of a video of Baldwin in Trump makeup bounding down a Saturday Night Live corridor and stopping for a second to say into the camera, “Keep up the good work.” Gee, Alec, thanks for sparing the time.

Although comedian Hasan Minhaj (The Daily Show) was the ostensible headliner, for viewers of a certain age it was the joint appearance by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that was the real thrill. The reunion was the journalism-geek equivalent of seeing Axl Rose and Slash performing together again as Guns N’ Roses. The former colleagues played nice, each paying lavish tribute to the other in their speeches and describing some of the details about how they brought down Richard Nixon and all the president’s men. Bernstein described journalism as attempting to discover “the best obtainable version of the truth,” while Woodward talked about how Bernstein was able to obtain crucial information about Nixon’s reelection committee from “not surprisingly, a former girlfriend.” As Bernstein laughed uncomfortably, Woodward pointed out, “He’s finally embarrassed.” He then got serious, addressing Trump by saying, “Mr. President, the media is not fake news!” and advising journalists, “This is no time for self-satisfaction or smugness.”  

Minhaj has been saying that he was told not to go after the president in absentia, but he proceeded to do just that. After making some mild jokes about the event (“Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner”), Comedy Central (“Basically an internship for Netflix”) and himself (“No one wanted to do this, so of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant”), he went hard after Trump (“the Liar-in-Chief”) and his administration.

“We gotta address the elephant in the room,” Minhaj told the crowd. “The leader of our country is not here, and that’s because he lives in Moscow and it’s a very long flight.”

The jokes about Betsy DeVos, Jeff Sessions, Sean Spicer, Rick Perry, etc., were more savage than funny, although Minhaj got off some decent pop culture-related one-liners including “The news coming out of the White House is so stressful, I’ve been watching House of Cards just to relax” and “Now that King Joffrey is president, it feels like the White Wedding in here.” But in Trump’s absence they lost their sting. There’s a reason that the Friars don’t roast anyone who isn’t actually there.

Ironically, Minhaj’s attacks on the media actually had more bite. He was an equal opportunity offender, going after MSNBC (“I had a lot more MSNBC jokes, but I don’t want to ramble on. Otherwise I might get a job hosting a show on MSNBC”) and CNN (“If you have nine experts on a panel, what’s your barrier of entry?”) as well as Fox News, The Huffington Post and USA Today.

Minhaj became serious toward the end of his routine, telling the journalists, “In the age of Trump, you guys have to be more perfect than ever. Because you’re how the President gets his news.”

“This has been one of the strangest events I’ve ever done in my life,” Minhaj confessed, before comparing the beleaguered press to minorities. He concluded by once again going after “the orange man behind the Muslim ban,” describing President Trump as “the man who tweets everything that goes on in his head without acknowledging the amendment that allows him to do it.”