Prominent Washington journalists, if not Hollywood stars, celebrated the First Amendment during the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner Saturday evening, an event that lacked the glitter of past years because of the absence of the president of the United States.
President Donald Trump became the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to skip the event — and Reagan’s absence was because he was recovering from an assassination attempt.
Meanwhile Trump was at a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to mark his first 100 days. He began his remarks with a lengthy if familiar attack on the news media while dismissing the dinner and its participants.
“A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation’s capital right now,” Trump said. He added: “And I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington’s swamp, spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people, right?”
With Trump’s absence, attention at the correspondent’s dinner was no longer focused on an in-person roasting of the commander in chief and his humorous remarks about politics and the press. The red carpet that once featured Oscar winners, TV stars, and a few major-league athletes barely turned heads.
Instead, speakers at the dinner promoted press freedom and responsibility and challenged Trump’s accusations of dishonest reporting.
The stars of the night were Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who recounted what they learned about journalism from their reporting for The Washington Post that helped lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation more than 40 years ago.
The evening was not without humor aimed at the press and Trump.
“We’ve got to address the elephant that’s not in the room,” cracked the entertainment headliner, Hasan Minhaj of “The Daily Show” on TV’s Comedy Central. “The leader of our country is not here. And that’s because he lives in Moscow. It’s a very long flight. As for the other guy, I think he’s in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke.”
The official WHCA dinner began in 1921. In recent decades, the event offered Washington’s press corps an opportunity to wear black tie and stunning gowns while mixing with celebrity guests. Most people trace that development to 1987, when Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Kelly brought Fawn Hall, the secretary at the center of the Iran-Contra affair.
The correspondents’ dinner was briefly upstaged Saturday afternoon when late-night TV star Samantha Bee of “Full Frontal” pulled in celebrities for the first “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
At his rally, Trump said that he plans to renegotiate the North Atlantic Trade Agreement, but he’ll withdraw if the U.S. doesn’t get a good deal. He boasted about withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans Pacific Partnership, an agreement he said would have cost Pennsylvania jobs. He also said the administration will investigate steel and aluminum dumping into the United States.
“We are reviewing every single trade deal, and wherever there is cheating, we will take immediate action and their will be penalties,” he said.
He also renewed promises on health care and taxes and attacking the news media that he says is misleading Americans. He also reiterated that he wanted the successful confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, his Cabinet choices, and the approval of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Declaring his “only allegiance is to you, our wonderful citizens,” Trump signed executive orders toughening the nation’s posture on trade deals.
“We are not going to let other countries take advantage of us anymore,” he said at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center. “From now on, it’s going to be America first.”
The state was critical to Trump’s victory. Trump won Pennsylvania with 48 percent of the vote, the first time the state had voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Trump also visited the AMES Companies in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County, a shovel manufacturer since 1774. With that backdrop he signed an executive order directing the Commerce Department and the U.S. trade representative to conduct a study of U.S. trade agreements. The goal is to determine whether America is being treated fairly by its trading partners and the 164-nation World Trade Organization.
Though the White House created a website touting its accomplishments of the first 100 days, Trump has tried to downplay the importance of the marker, perhaps out of recognition that many of his campaign promises have gone unfulfilled.
“It’s a false standard, 100 days,” Trump said while signing an executive order on Friday, “but I have to tell you, I don’t think anybody has done what we’ve been able to do in 100 days, so we’re very happy.”
Story by the Associated Press