Over the first 15 months of President Donald Trump’s administration, the relationship between the White House and the press has been cold and contentious. But, for one weekend, over the course of four days of brunches, parties and black-tie dinners, the tension melted a bit and the temperature was turned down.
On Friday evening, Atlantic Media owner David Bradley welcomed several members of the administration to his house for drinks and dinner. First daughter Ivanka Trump, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, defense secretary James Mattis and commerce secretary Wilbur Ross all showed up, mixing with a crowd of media luminaries and members of Congress. (The Bradley party was entertaining for other reasons, as well: At one point, the mayor of Washington bumped into and spilled wine on a journalist; at another, a Boston Terrier got loose and sprinted through the house toward the formal dinner in the back garden.)
Conway was busy on Friday night, later stopping by a swanky party at the British ambassador’s residence and a hot bash co-hosted by UTA and Mediaite on the Georgetown waterfront. “I’m normally in bed right now,” Conway told The Hollywood Reporter after midnight. She planned to call it a night earlier, but then decided to change her shoes and head back out again, she said. (Earlier, Conway was seen huddling with her former colleague of 11 days, Anthony Scaramucci.)
At the ambassador’s residence, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was seen laughing and schmoozing with several members of the White House press corps she’s tussled with, including NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander and Bloomberg News correspondent Margaret Talev, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. (At one point, noticeably giddy former White House press secretary Sean Spicer walked by the group, which included deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, and waved to Sanders.)
Sanders and Conway were both targets of comedian Michelle Wolf, who hosted the WHCA dinner on Saturday night. Wolf said that “Con-way” was the perfect last name for what the counselor does in the White House, and she also savaged Sanders while the press secretary looked on uncomfortably from the dais, bringing back memories of Stephen Colbert’s legendary roasting of the George W. Bush administration in the 2006.) The comedian also took aim at CNN and MSNBC, mocking the latter’s “This Is Who We Are” slogan, which she said sounds like the name of “the sad show on NBC.” CNN, she said, “broke” the news. (Spicer was not a fan of Wolf’s performance, telling THR, “If that was a celebration of the First Amendment, I’m staying away from the 4th of July celebration.”)
CNN anchor Don Lemon, who has been called “Sour Lemon” by the president, said at a brunch on Saturday morning that he’s not sure the administration’s increased presence suggested a “charm offensive” toward the press. If so, he said, “I think it’s a good strategy. We need the fourth estate. We’re as integral to America as they are.” (Lemon, still buzzing from an encounter the night before with Conway, excitedly showed THR a photo on his phone of himself watching Conway meet Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti.)
At the same brunch, MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who has emerged as a high-energy critic of the administration, said it’s “great” to have more of a White House presence over the weekend.
Lemon’s colleague, Jake Tapper, wasn’t buying the notion that a dinner weekend could improve White House-press relations. “The problem is the president,” he said Saturday night at the Washington Hilton, where the dinner was held. “The problem is that the president rails against the press, tries to undermine the press, says that everything you say is lies, even things he knows to be true. … The problem is that there is an administration run by somebody who doesn’t understand the need for the free press.”
Across the room, Republican Ohio governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich said the event underscores the importance of a free press. Asked how he thinks the Trump administration treats the media, Kasich told THR, “I think that they should show more respect.”
For a second straight year, the weekend was missing the A-list celebrities that once made the event a sensation. But not everybody thought it was such a loss. “I don’t miss the Hollywood element of this party,” one high-profile CNN journalist was overheard saying before the dinner began.
While the movie stars were missing, television news journalists, celebrities in the age of Trump, were the objects of attention. Over the course of 10 minutes, three party attendees surreptitiously took pictures of MSNBC host Chris Matthews schmoozing in a crowded hallway, with one gawker slowly moving his camera focus from a woman to Matthews’ right until he appeared in frame.
At Fiola Mare restaurant on Friday night, entertainers, journalists and politicians broke bread over chilled lobster tails and sliders.
Outside the restaurant, while he waited for his ride, Tapper hugged Wolf and wished her well on the eve of her performance. “You’re going to do awesome!” he told her, after the two took a picture.
Inside, fired U.S. attorney and podcast host Preet Bharara held court at the bar, as nouveau celebrities like Scaramucci (who put his arm around Fox News host Brian Kilmeade) and Avenatti shuffled by, shaking hands and taking photos as requested. On the other side of the party, Comedy Central host Jordan Klepper chatted with Fox News correspondent Ed Henry and Hannity executive producer Porter Berry.
Klepper, in town for his first White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend, on Saturday said he’d like to sit down with the party-hopping Conway over a bottle of Chardonnay, “have some fun together” and hash out the administration’s “real” hostility toward the media. He predicted that Trump, who held a counter-programming rally on Saturday night in Washington Township, Michigan, instead of attending the event, would gradually move closer to D.C. each Correspondents’ Dinner weekend, ending up in the Capitol area on the fourth year of his presidency. “He’s getting closer to facing the jokes,” Klepper said.
The two hottest post-dinner parties were put on by Playboy magazine, a first-timer, and MSNBC/NBC News, which holds an annual bash. The cold temperatures left many MSNBC/NBC News guests clinging to heat lamps, putting a damper on the festivities. Avenatti, who attended the dinner as a guest of The Daily Beast, stopped by the Art Museum of the Americas for the party. There was a rumor that his client, Stormy Daniels, would make an appearance at the Playboy party, but the telegenic attorney said it was just fake news.
Asked by THR about his whirlwind weekend in the spotlight, Avenatti said that being at the center of attention was “very enjoyable” and “very flattering,” though he’s focused on his client’s case. He added, “Any time that you can be around so many smart people, it naturally elevates your game.”
As Saturday night turned into Sunday morning and guests started preparing for the final events of the weekend, including closing brunches put on by CNN and Reuters, some wondered whether the weekend would actually make a difference. “I think it’s a really heated time, and I’d like to think that no one hates one another,” MSNBC’s Ruhle said of the often-tense, White House-press relationship. “At the end of the day, everyone’s just doing their jobs, and they’re trying to do it to the best of their ability.”