It always made sense that, sooner or later, President Trump would attend one of the big annual Washington press dinners.
True, we media denizens are part of the “swamp” Mr. Trump loves to hate, but we also give him oxygen. Tweets only go so far in the vast enterprise that is presidential communications. And of course he’d be the center of attention – with legions of reporters hanging on his every word and facial expression – as he and the Washington political scene were being roasted.
Last year, the president pointedly skipped both the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the smaller, off-camera Gridiron Dinner, the annual gala and satirical show put on by Washington’s oldest journalistic club. So when the president agreed to attend last Saturday’s Gridiron and deliver remarks, a frisson of nervous anticipation shot through the group.
Would he really show up? Would he go off script? Would he walk out? Even Trump allies were asking themselves the same questions.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” an administration official told me before the event.
Full disclosure: I am a member of the club, and performed in the show. So I knew what was in store for the president, along with the first lady, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, and the other top officials who accepted the invitation to attend.
The motto of the club is “singe, but never burn” – but the line between singeing and burning is highly subjective. I wondered, for example, how Trump would react to lines like this: “Don’t even think/ of making mirth/ About his girth/ or net worth!”
Try to imagine a Washington lawyer – a Gridiron “ringer” who can actually sing – dressed up as Groucho Marx, singing that line to the tune of “These are the Laws of My Administration” from the movie “Duck Soup.”
That’s how the Gridiron show works: Club members, all current or former reporters, take well-known tunes from stage and screen, and adapt the lyrics to fit the politics of the day. Elaborate costumes and visual jokes round out the show. Picture a pair of reporters in Twitteresque bluebird garb crossing the stage during scene changes with signs that read, for example: “SAD!”
Democrats also came in for serious satire. Hillary Clinton was lampooned to the tune of “You’re So Vain.” (“You walked into my West Wing/ My White House, or so I thought/ Your tie strategically dropped below your belt/ Your hair it was apricot/ I still wake up most nights screaming/ With my PJs in a knot.”) Former Vice President Joe Biden, Oprah Winfrey, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu were all parodied for their possible presidential aspirations.
Yours truly was decked out in full Mardi Gras regalia to introduce the song ribbing Mr. Landrieu. He was the evening’s Democratic speaker, and he found some common ground with the president – sort of: “We’re both a little overweight and balding – I just have had an easier time admitting it.”
Maybe, on that particular joke, it helped that Trump himself had recently shared a bit about his bald spot. And maybe it helped set the tone that the skits mocking Democrats went first, before those mocking Republicans, and that the dinner’s GOP speaker was Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Trump favorite.
But by all accounts, including Trump’s own tweet, he enjoyed the show. As a showman himself, Trump surely appreciated the spectacle – and our sterling performances. Guests who watched from the ballroom report that he swayed to the music, smiled, and even laughed.
At last, Trump himself took the microphone. It was a Gridiron speech for the ages – by turns funny, bizarre, and biting – designed to show that he can, in fact, make fun of himself, even as he spared no one in his midst, including his wife and son-in-law.
“My staff was concerned that I couldn’t do self-deprecating humor,” Trump said. “And I told them not to worry, nobody does self-deprecating humor better than I do.”
Of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who stepped aside from his department’s Russian investigation, he said this: “I offered him a ride over, and he recused himself.”
Of Mr. Kushner, his son-in-law and a senior aide, he said this: “You know, we were late tonight because Jared could not get through security,” a reference to Kushner’s recent loss of top-level security clearance.
Of his wife, Melania, who sat nearby, he raised eyebrows with this: “Now the question everyone keeps asking is: Who is going to be the next to leave? [Senior adviser] Steve Miller or Melania?”
Trump then appeared to go off-script as he turned to his wife and said, “That is terrible, honey, but you love me, right?... I won’t tell you what she said.... She said, ‘Behave.’... Is that terrible?”
It was a “meta” moment that left club members standing at the back of the ballroom slack-jawed and wondering exactly what he was trying to tell us. For the record, there were no jokes in the show about Trump’s alleged affair in 2006 with a porn star, which he denies.
Trump’s remarks lasted 35 minutes – well beyond the 10 or 15 minutes presidents usually take at Gridiron. At one point, a heckler yelled at him to stop. For Trump, that was probably a plus.
“The Gridiron Dinner last night was great fun,” the president tweeted the next day.
Inevitably, this year’s gala extended the long-running debate about whether it’s appropriate for White House reporters and the people they cover to socialize for an evening, be it at Gridiron or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It’s a worthy question, and with a president who has referred to the news media as “the enemy of the people,” it has taken on added weight.
But here’s this participant’s take: Regardless of how the president feels about the media, he and the scribes charged with reporting on him are in the same soup for the next three – or seven – years. One can argue they might as well get to know one another a bit as people, if only to promote mutual understanding.
Americans who disapprove of Trump’s performance in office and who are appalled that such fraternizing “normalizes” his presidency might consider this: News reporters are trained to maintain a certain emotional detachment from the people they cover. And better understanding of those people makes for fuller, more nuanced coverage – and a more informed citizenry.
Now, on to the correspondents’ dinner on April 28. The early line is that Trump might attend that one, too.