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White House Correspondents’ Dinner Host Controversy
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is returning to form this year, with Kenan Thompson taking on hosting duties, while Hasan Minhaj steps in as featured performer. The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) surprised the public with its announcement on Tuesday, following a contentious few years for the program. While the Correspondents’ Dinner was once a good-natured roast of all things Washington DC—from lawmakers to media—President Donald Trump’s thin skin and volatile politics turned a harmless night of comedy into a partisan shit show in recent years.
While Thompson, an SNL mainstay and reliable comedy figure, feels like a safe choice for the organization, Minhaj’s critical political humor is a surprising move for the WHCA—especially compared to last year’s host, historian Ron Chernow.
The dinner, which annually airs on CSPAN, is known as DC’s “nerd prom”—a gathering of (mostly) political journalists, with a smattering of A-list Hollywood talent and prominent media figures. The whole point of the evening is to have the night’s host take everyone to task: the media, the current administration, and even the president. With presidents having attended for nearly 100 years (the first official attendance dates back to 1924), the president always gets the last word, with varying results depending on how charming he is. But all of that has changed in the past four years.
Cut to 2017, Trump’s first dinner, when the President made the announcement that he would not be attending the annual festivities. Many suggested that the President, who has a history of not liking criticism (comedic or not), was too sensitive for the evening. Then-deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders commented to ABC’s The Week, “You know, one of the things we say in the South, if a Girl Scout egged your house, would you buy cookies from her? I think that this is a pretty similar scenario.” First off, no one in the South says that. Secondly, it kicked off what would become a new tradition—passing on the invitation. Trump’s three absences from the event marked the first time that a president had skipped the ceremony since Ronald Reagan, who could not attend because he was recovering from an assassination attempt.
This absence served as an early signal of Trump’s opposition to the press, which Steve Bannon once literally called as the “opposition party” early in the administration. The dinner went forward in 2017, with Hasan Minhaj hosting, though many felt that a Correspondents’ Dinner without major political figures wasn’t a Correspondents’ Dinner at all. The jokes had their normal barbs, especially when it came to immigration, but the ceremony still lacked the punch its preceding ceremonies had. The same year, late night host Samantha Bee started the “Not the White House Correspondents Dinner” as alternative programming to the evening.
The following year, the WHCA upped the ante, offering comedian Michelle Wolf as the host of the evening. Trump again refused to attend the dinner. Instead, the White House offered then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as the evening’s figurehead, which proved to be a bad idea. Wolf went in on the Press Secretary for “burn[ing] facts” and “us[ing] that ash to create a perfect smokey eye.” Wolf’s critics took this as a jeer about Sanders’ appearance.
She also slighted Trump’s decision to pass on the ceremony, commenting extensively on his sensitivity. In response, Wolf received massive criticism, which ventured into full-on bullying and death threats. Republicans and some Democrats called for an apology—Wolf refused, noting that she only did the job she was hired to do. The WHCA, however, backtracked, saying that Wolf’s set was “not in the spirit” of the dinner. The organization eventually caved and said it regretted the choice, but would not apologize… which is in essence, an apology.
In response to the outrage, the organization chose Ron Chernow, a historian, to give a speech on the history of the First Amendment in 2019, which was decidedly less exciting (and a hell of a departure) from normal festivities. The ceremonies were largely overlooked in 2019, with a notable lack of star power and media coverage. Glossier publications like Vanity Fair cancelled annual parties around the event.
Late last year, Wolf told Esquire that she didn’t care if the Correspondents’ Dinner ever went back to its old ways, saying the entire event had become disgusting:
The dinner itself, I think it got to a place where it was disgusting. It was gross. When I was there, Jeff Zucker [the president of] CNN saw Kellyanne Conway from across the room. And he was like, “Kellyanne!” and she came over and gave him a big hug. And I was like, “Oh, gross.” CNN pretends like they hate Kellyanne. Kellyanne pretends she hates CNN. But in real life, they love each other because they’re both making so much money and as soon as I saw that, I was like,”They deserve every single thing I’m about to say because it’s disgusting.” They are profiting so much off of this turmoil, and in person, amongst one another, they love it.
That leads us into 2020, where the ceremony will return to its comedic form on April 25. Jonathan Karl, WHCA President said in a statement, “Kenan and Hasan are two of the most engaged and engaging entertainers in America. I’m thrilled they’ll help us even rate the role of a free press in our democracy.” With Thompson on hosting duties, it’s likely that the jokes will be much more crass than anything Chernow had to say last year, but decidedly tamer than what the WHCA has featured in the past. As for Trump’s presence, the absence is expected to continue through the fourth year of his term. The president has said in the past year that the press has committed a form of treason, so it’s unlikely that he’ll attend the event orchestrated to be a meeting of politicians and press.
This year’s ceremony will be broadcast, as usual, on CSPAN.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.