If several media and political pundits are to be believed, President Donald Trump sits in the White House today as the result of several hours one warm April evening nearly six years ago: the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
That year, at the invitation of none other than The Washington Post, Trump — then best known for “Celebrity Apprentice” – attended the event, an annual gathering of journalists that typically has been headlined by the sitting president. Or, as The Post’s Roxanne Roberts once described it, a dinner “devolved from a little-known media evening into a black-tie mash-up of the Super Bowl, the Oscars and Davos, Washington-style.”
Trump was no ordinary celebrity guest in 2011, however. In addition to being a reality TV fixture, he was one of the most vocal opponents of President Barack Obama, leading the “birther” movement that had demanded Obama release his birth certificate. Trump had also been hinting, not for the first time, that he might launch his own bid for the presidency.
All of those things coalesced to make Trump the target of a large swath of jokes at the 2011 correspondents’ dinner.
First came Obama, who roasted Trump for a full five minutes that evening, seeming to delight in directing zingers at the man who had questioned whether he was a legitimate president.
“No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald,” Obama said. “That’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like: Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
Obama also joked about Trump’s experience to lead the nation.
“All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” he said. “For example, no, seriously, just recently in an episode of ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership and so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Little John or Meatloaf — you fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well-handled, sir. Well-handled.”
But it was comedian Seth Meyers, the host of that year’s dinner, who really laid into Trump. For several minutes, Meyers lobbed one joke after another at Trump’s expense, even wedging in a prescient imitation of Trump hosting a White House news conference:
“Gary Busey said recently that Donald Trump would make an excellent president. Of course, he said the same thing about an old, rusty birdcage he found.”
“Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican – which is surprising, since I just assumed that he was running as a joke.”
“Donald Trump owns the Miss USA pageant, which is great for Republicans because it will streamline their search for a vice president.”
Video from the dinner would later show Trump seemingly frozen in the audience, lips pursed, staring straight ahead with his face set into something between a squint and a hard scowl, as Meyers continued.
Several publications have since seized upon the 2011 dinner as the moment in which Trump’s political ambitions crystallized.
“That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world,” the New York Times wrote last March. “And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.”
The National Review, in a similar search for what might have motivated Trump to run, published a piece in July titled “How the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Gave Us the Trump Campaign.” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote in September 2015 that he had been seated a few tables away from Trump in 2011.
“On that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back — perhaps even pursue the Presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself,” Gopnik wrote.
That said, The Post’s Roberts has systematically dismantled the theory that Trump was spurred to run specifically because of the 2011 correspondents’ dinner, disastrous as it may have been for him. For one, his presidential ambitions apparently started decades earlier.
“This narrative flies in the face of actual history: Trump mentioned running for president as far back as the 1980s, so the notion that this dinner was the single catalyst for this presidential campaign is absurd,” she wrote in April.
Roberts also pointed out that Trump had been the star of a 2011 Comedy Central roast just two months earlier, “an X-rated drubbing that made Obama and Meyers look like weenies.”
For what it’s worth, Trump has denied that the 2011 dinner had anything to do with his eventual campaign. He told Roberts in April that he had a “phenomenal time” at the event, though he thought Meyers’s routine was “too nasty, out of order.”
“There are many reasons I’m running,” Trump told Roberts. “But that’s not one of them.”
That has not stopped many from pointing to the 2011 dinner as the tipping point for Trump’s political ambitions — including Meyers himself. Earlier this month, the late-night comedian made an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” where the two tussled, half-jokingly, about who should take the “credit” for spurring Trump’s presidency.
Fallon brought up Trump’s appearance on his show in September, in which the host had playfully ruffled the hair of the then-presidential candidate. Afterward, Fallon was roundly criticized for going too easy on Trump – and, some said, for legitimizing a candidate who had run a divisive, controversial campaign.
Still, Meyers joked to his former “Saturday Night Live” cast mate, he had been miffed by the attention Fallon got after that interview.
“I know after that happened, you took some heat,” Meyers told Fallon. “People said you are the reason he won. And I’m so insulted about that, because I am the reason he won.”
Meyers added: “I made fun of him in 2011. That’s the night he decided to run. I kicked the hornet’s nest. You just rubbed — you rubbed the hornet’s head . . . Again, it’s not the outcome I wanted, but it’s history.”
“Yeah, you just want some respect,” Fallon told Meyers, to laughter.
“I got a man elected president,” Meyers said. “I want my points.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, calls to boycott the White House correspondents’ dinner had grown louder amid his increasingly fraught relationship with the news media. Throughout his campaign, he regularly lashed out at the press, singling out news outlets as being “dishonest” and at one point barring The Post from covering his events. Since his election, he has accused certain media outlets of publishing “fake news.” The tense relationship reached a boil when Trump called the media “the enemy of the American People.”
Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Bloomberg canceled their parties associated with the event, though the decisions may have been percolating for some time.
“To think that next spring Trump could be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner as the commander in chief renders one almost speechless,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter wrote in an issue of the magazine that published shortly before Election Day.
When Trump on Saturday abruptly announced that he would not attend this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner, he offered no explanation. The White House Correspondents’ Association, which sponsors the annual event, said in an email that the dinner would take place regardless.
On Sunday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged on ABC’s “This Week” that there had been tensions between the president and the media.
“I think it’s . . . kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn’t there,” Sanders told “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos.
Trump would skip the dinner to instead “spend the night focused on what he can do to help better America,” Sanders said.
“You know, one of the things we say in the South [is] ‘If a Girl Scout egged your house, would you buy cookies from her?’ I think that this is a pretty similar scenario,” Sanders added. “There’s no reason for him to go in and sit and pretend like this is going to be just another Saturday night.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Amy B. Wang