White House Correspondents' Dinner in Trouble as Trump Scares Off Hollywood Stars and Media

White House Correspondents' Dinner Lacks Buzz  - Illustration by Læmeur -H 2017
Illustration by Læmeur

"I see it as a huge opportunity for a comedian to do something interesting," says Larry Wilmore, who headlined 2016's dinner, as the host gig goes unfilled and MSNBC has yet to commit to its party amid the president's press war.

Flame-retardant formalwear might be in order for the first White House Correspondents' Association Dinner with Donald Trump. The president's media war and initial policy moves are recasting Washington's premier social event as a radioactive hot potato that few Hollywood stars or media outlets want to touch.

President Trump is expected to attend the April 29 event at the Washington Hilton. But others are bailing on the festivities this year. Sources tell THR the casts of the D.C.-set House of Cards, Veep and Scandal likely will not attend (all have had a presence during the Obama years), while the WHCA has yet to secure a comedian headliner, as is customary by February. Many media organizations are waffling on their usual plans for the weekend. It's unclear whether MSNBC will host its traditional afterparty, an event known for anchor and amateur mixologist Rachel Maddow tending the bar. Also unknown is whether Funny or Die will host its Friday night kickoff party. Already, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker — both of whose editors have been critical of Trump — have pulled out of the festivities. (Bloomberg, which co-sponsors the Vanity Fair event, will go it alone.)

CBS News and The Atlantic are moving forward with their predinner cocktail reception. “As a member of the WHCA, CBS News is firmly committed to supporting the organization," CBS News vp and Washington bureau chief Christopher Isham tells THR in a statement. "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.”

And CNN — a frequent Trump target — still is planning to have its Sunday brunch. A CNN source tells THR that it will have a similar presence at the dinner; in years past, the network has purchased close to a dozen tables. It's unclear whether CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker will attend.

"It's going to be a very different event and a very different crowd," says Elizabeth Thorp, Washington insider and editor of female-driven digital comedy channel PYPO. "All around town the buzz is, there is no buzz."

Under Obama, the dinner came to resemble a Hollywood awards show. Celebrities (Kerry Washington, Scarlett Johansson, the cast of Game of Thrones) filled many of the 2,670 seats inside the Hilton ballroom as media outlets jockeyed to invite attention-grabbing stars to sit at their tables. Sources at many TV news divisions say they have yet to set their own guest lists, but all note there will be far fewer — if any — invitations to the Hollywood crowd. "There will be minimal celebrities in that room," says one Washington media exec. "It's going to be difficult to get any talent to be there."

Some traditional Washington media types are happy about this, having felt squeezed out of their own event by the likes of Kim Kardashian in recent years. "The dinner has just been terribly overcrowded," says one D.C. bureau chief. "So maybe we'll have a little more room to move this year." After all, the event is supposed to honor the best political reporting of the past year (some of which Trump may have labeled "fake news") and also raises money for journalism scholarships.

As for the celebrity host, multiple sources say there is considerable aversion among performers, especially in the wake of Trump's executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim countries. (James Corden is among those who are said to have passed.) But others see it as an opportunity to send a message to the president at a time of deep uncertainty about his first moves. Stephen Colbert, who in 2006 delivered a devastating satirical takedown of George W. Bush and the media for its failure to properly scrutinize the administration's run-up to the Iraq invasion, has said he would be "honored" to deliver the keynote this year.

"You want to be respectful of the office but, my goodness, this would be the year to absolutely take that [invite] if you were asked," says Larry Wilmore, who headlined 2016's dinner. "If you really are against everything that comes out of Trump's mouth — or his fingers, if he's tweeting — what an opportunity to let that be known in a very funny and creative way." Wilmore adds that the WHCA never censored nor scrutinized what he said at the podium in front of Obama: "Nobody vetted my material. Nobody knew what Stephen was going to do. I see it as a huge opportunity for a comedian to do something interesting."

There is precedent for not having a comedian at the event. In 1999, mere months after Congress voted to impeach Bill Clinton, NBC's Brian Williams hosted the dinner and Aretha Franklin sang. And while the WHCA leadership chooses the host, past White House officials note that there is tacit pressure from any administration to select someone with whom the president feels comfortable. It's unclear who that might be in this contentious year. But, says David Litt, a former speechwriter for Obama and head writer at Funny or Die in Washington: "There is value in the United States saying to the rest of the world, 'We are still a country where you can make fun of our president to his face and have all of your fingers and toes afterward.' "

Of course, Trump is notoriously thin-skinned, as his grievance-filled Twitter feed attests. And his own experience with the dinner is a bit freighted; he sat seething in the audience in 2011 when Obama and then-host Seth Meyers eviscerated him for, among other things, mining the racist birther lie. And he was booed in October at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in Manhattan when his attempt at self-deprecation morphed into an attack on Hillary Clinton, who sat a few feet away. Asked to predict how Trump would perform, Full Frontal star Samantha Bee notes: "No one loves to deliver a monologue more than he does, so I assume he'll be quite happy to stand up there — whether people find it funny or not is a different matter entirely."

Bee is hosting an alternative event April 29 — Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner — a few miles away at the Willard Hotel. Proceeds are earmarked for the Committee to Protect Journalists. And many Beltway sources predict Bee's party will draw more boldface names than the official dinner.

"We're not trying to damage them in any way," she says. "I think they've suffered enough."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.