The white house press corps on Saturday for its annual black-tie dinner a toned-do affair this year after Donald trump snubbed the event, becoming the first incumbent US president to bow out in 36 years.
Without Trump, who scheduled a rally instead to mark his 100th day in office, the usually celebrity-filled soiree hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association took a more sober turn, even as it pulled in top journalists and Washington insiders.
The humour fell to Indian-American headline comedian Hasan Minhaj.
“Welcome to the series finale of the White House correspondents’ dinner,” Minhaj, who plays a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show program, told the crowd.
He joked about Trump, despite organisers’ wishes, saying he did so to honour US constitutional protection of free speech: “Only in America can a first-generation, Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president.”
He even joked how Trump would later tweet about his performance, confusing him for singer Nicki Minaj.
“We’ve got to address the elephant that’s not in the room,” cracked the entertainment headliner. “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.”
Trump was indeed in Pennsylvania, having scheduled a rally in Harrisburg to mark his 100th day in office. He began his remarks with a lengthy if familiar attack on the news media while dismissing the dinner and its participants.
“I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away,” he told a crowd in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, calling out The New York Times, CNN and MSNBC by name.
Trump attended in 2011, when then-President Barack Obama made jokes at the expense of the New York real estate developer and reality television show host.
Most of Trump’s administration also skipped the event in solidarity with the president, who has repeatedly accused the press of mistreatment.
With Trump sending his regrets, 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.
“Like politicians and presidents sometimes, perhaps too frequently, we make mistakes and go too far,” Woodward said. “When that happens we should own up to it. But the effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. Mr. President, the media is not ‘fake news’