In some sense, the fate of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend was sealed April 6, when it was revealed that President Donald Trump would once again skip the dinner, even though he had said, “I would come next year, absolutely,” last April.
Trump’s attendance would have created a fascinating dynamic and storyline: a sitting president trying to do shtick for an audience of journalists he mostly dislikes. It would have made for captivating television and great ratings for C-SPAN, as during the Barack Obama years.
Instead, this year’s dinner, which takes place Saturday, feels much like last year’s. “Looking like another quiet year again,” said one plugged-in attendee.
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he’ll attend a few of the weekend’s parties but not the actual dinner. “I think it’s definitely been taken down a notch,” he said of the weekend. “It’s somewhat lost its cachet.”
But not all WHCD pundits are so bearish. “Compared to last year, the dinner this year seems to be coming back in terms of energy and draw,” said one Washington media veteran who will be attending her 13th dinner this year.
While the 2017 event was shut out by Trump’s administration, this year will be a different story. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is scheduled to attend Saturday’s dinner, and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told The Hollywood Reporter recently that she’ll come, too. Trump’s White House also will be represented at the weekend’s party slate — Defense secretary James Mattis, for example, is expected to attend Atlantic Media owner David Bradley’s Friday-night party for a second straight year, along with other staffers.
“The fact that members of the administration are participating seems to have diluted any previous tensions,” said the D.C. media vet.
UTA co-president Jay Sures said he’s not surprised that Trump is bailing once again — “Do you really want to go to a place where people will make fun of you?” he asked. UTA will co-host a party Friday night with Mediaite and will have a client, comedian Michelle Wolf, emceeing the official dinner Saturday night, which Sures said is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“It’s always a fun weekend for some reason,” Sures said, noting that this year’s event — his fourth — will unfold in a climate that’s become more inhospitable to journalists, including the TV personalities his agency represents.
“I have more clients who have security concerns than I’ve ever had,” he said. “Who would have thought that a journalist would ever need a bodyguard?”
Last year’s party slate was devoid of some of the weekend’s longtime standouts, including joint bashes from Bloomberg/Vanity Fair magazine and Time/People magazines. Those parties will not be returning this year.
But there will be a new party on the calendar from an unlikely suspect: Playboy magazine.
Cooper Hefner, the company’s 26-year-old chief creative director (and son of founder Hugh Hefner) said his party will stand out, though he wouldn’t quite tip his hand. “I suspect you’ll immediately understand why our parties have a tendency to be more fun than the others,” he told THR. “We have no intention of just going and raising our flag and throwing a traditional party to do it.”
Hefner said there’s a “strong possibility” that one of Trump’s adult children will attend his company’s party. (Law student Tiffany Trump was at Playboy‘s New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles, he said.)
Despite not being a “huge fan” of the president, Hefner said that members of the Trump administration are welcome to attend the party. Not inviting them, he said, would be tantamount to the president avoiding the dinner.
“It’s about the relationship with the executive branch of the government and the press,” he said. “To voluntarily protest that is ridiculous.”