If one asked a Magic 8-Ball to describe the mood in Washington just ahead of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner, it might read: outlook hazy.

With just days to go before the annual dinner, D.C. is usually dusting off the red carpets for a flood of VIPs about to descend on the nation’s capital. But with President Trump declining to attend this year’s 103rd installment, the star power largely MIA and several news outlets nixing their usual bashes, regulars say the “weirdness” factor surrounding the black-tie dinner is high.

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“There’s a lot of uncertainty” about the Saturday event at the Washington Hilton, says Julie Mason. The SiriusXM “The Press Pool” host and former WHCA board member calls the feeling in the District before the dinner “way more subdued.”

“I think maybe a lot of people came to Washington during Obama’s administration and don’t have anything to compare it to,” Mason tells ITK. “But when you go back through the years, especially during Republican presidencies, it really wasn’t this star-studded celebrity power bash. And there weren’t all these exclusive parties. That really mushroomed during the Obama years, because celebrities love Democrats and big party-givers love celebrities.”

George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, Kerry Washington and Kevin Spacey are some of the Hollywood heavy-hitters who attended the correspondents’ dinner in recent years. 

This year, some of the stars in town for the weekend-long festivities include actress Alyssa Milano, “Pretty Little Liars” actor Chad Lowe and Matt Walsh from “Veep” — all expected at the Creative Coalition’s “Right to Bear Arts” gala. Also expected are Elvis Costello, who’s slated to play some tunes at TBS’s “Full Frontal” after-party, and actor Billy Bob Thornton, who will be performing alongside Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell at Mother Nature Network’s White House Correspondents’ Jam.

“I don’t honestly think anybody knows what to think of it,” CNBC senior economics reporter Steve Liesman says when asked about the vibe in D.C. Liesman, who will take the stage at the third annual Jam with his band, The Mooncussers, and “Shark Tank” investor Kevin O’Leary, says he’s not sure Trump’s decision to break with tradition and skip the dinner is “the smartest move.”

“I think the president should go,” Liesman says. “I think that there’s historically been one night of the year of detente, and that’s a good and healthy thing for both sides.” 

Trump, who has an often toxic relationship with the press and has called “fake news” the “enemy of the American people,” announced in February that he’d be forgoing the correspondents’ dinner. “Next Saturday night I will be holding a BIG rally in Pennsylvania. Look forward to it!” Trump tweeted last week.

“I feel bad, because a lot of White House reporters are going to have to go and cover that and not come to our own dinner,” Mason says. “It’s one thing for him to stay home, and that was fine. And he can just tweet about us and be mean, and that would be kind of funny, and it would feel right. But for him to stage a competing event — we just can’t even have our dinner? We just can’t even do that?”

Susanna Quinn, the founder of the on-demand luxury lifestyle app Veluxe, is one of several hosts of Thursday’s “Bytes & Bylines” party.

“Any event that the president regularly attends — no matter who the president is — there’s going to be a sense of disappointment if he doesn’t go,” she says. 

“If Trump were going, there would be much more attention focused on it, whether good or bad,” Quinn adds. But she doesn’t think Trump’s presence would be likely to up the star power, which is what draws a lot of attention.

“Washington gets so excited about Hollywood. Even the wonkiest people in D.C. get star-struck,” Quinn says with a laugh.

Several media outlets — including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, People and Bloomberg — scrapped their annual correspondents’ dinner-related shindigs this year.

But others are carrying on with “Nerd Prom” plans.

Samantha Bee is hosting a “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” comedy special the same day as the WHCA event, Independent Journal Review is holding its “Golden Age of Journalism” party on Thursday and Capitol File magazine’s celebration is among a crowded field of Friday-night gatherings. Tammy Haddad’s annual Garden Brunch is on for Saturday, and CNN and Thomson Reuters will both host brunches on Sunday, the morning after the dinner.

Despite there being “lots of uncertainty and weirdness surrounding it, for sure,” as Julie Mason puts it, WHCA President Jeff Mason tells ITK that the soiree is once again sold out this year. “The Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj is poised to headline the event, which raises money for journalism scholarships.

Mason says he wouldn’t use “weird” to describe the mood “at all.”

“I think people are interested to see how it’s going to work without the president of the United States attending, because it’s the first time that we’ve had a dinner without the president since 1981,” he says.

Then-President Reagan missed the 1981 dinner as he recovered from an assassination attempt.

“Clearly it’s a different kind of dinner without [Trump] in attendance, but it’s also been a great opportunity to make clear that this dinner is about celebrating the press, not the presidency. And that’s what we’ll be doing,” Mason adds.

“Jeff Mason, the president, keeps promising surprises,” says Julie Mason, who’s not related to the WHCA head and Reuters White House correspondent. 

“No one knows what that might be. Will there be strippers? What kind of surprises? No one knows what to expect from the vibe,” she says with a big laugh.

“There may be a couple of surprises. But the main thrust of the dinner is focusing on the First Amendment and highlighting our scholarship winners and our award winners,” Jeff Mason says. Veteran journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will present awards at the event.

Julie Mason laments that none of the changes are likely to appease the annual dinner’s constant critics.

“A new way to be mean about the dinner — they can look forward to that,” she says. “A new way to feel superior, and be snide, and be disgusted and indignant on Twitter. People can really, really look forward to that. It’s gonna be big for the haters.”

 

EVENTS LIST

All events listed are invitation-only.

Thursday, April 27

Washingtonian and Story Partners’ Washington Women in Journalism Awards
Hosted by Gloria Story Dittus and Catherine Merrill Williams
6–8:30 p.m.; Home of Gloria Story Dittus

“Bytes & Bylines”
Hosted by Allen Gannett, Eric Kuhn, John McCarthy and Susanna Quinn
7–10 p.m.; DTR Modern Gallery

Independent Journal Review’s “Golden Age of Journalism” party
8–11 p.m.; Carnegie Library

Friday, April 28

Creative Coalition’s “Right to Bear Arts” Gala
8 p.m.; Flavio
Expected celebrities: Tim Daly, “Madam Secretary”; Justin Bartha, “The Hangover”; Sarah Wayne Callies, “Prison Break”; Kathrine Herzer, “Madam Secretary”; Keegan-Michael Key, “Key & Peele”; Chad Lowe, “Pretty Little Liars”; Wendi McLendon-Covey, “The Goldbergs”; Alyssa Milano, “Mistresses”; Denis O’Hare, “American Horror Story”; Nick Sandow, “Orange is the New Black”; Aaron Staton, “Mad Men”; Matt Walsh, “Veep” 

Capitol File Reception
6–9 p.m.; British Ambassador’s Residence

RealClearPolitics, Distilled Spirits Council, National Restaurant Association and Beer Institute’s  “A Toast to the First Amendment”
7–10 p.m.; National Restaurant Association

Mother Nature Network’s White House Correspondents’ Jam
7–11 p.m.; The Hamilton Live
Expected celebrities: Billy Bob Thornton, “Bad Santa”; Chuck Leavell, The Rolling Stones; Kevin O’Leary, “Shark Tank”

Voto Latino and The Young Turks’ “Our Voices”
7 p.m.; WeWork White House

WeWork’s New Media Party
8:30 p.m.–12 a.m.; WeWork White House

United Talent Agency and Mediaite’s “The First Amendment and Excellence in Journalism” party
Hosted by Jay Sures and Dan Abrams
9 p.m.; Fiola Mare

Saturday, April 29

Garden Brunch
Hosted by Tammy Haddad, Kevin Sheekey, Hilary Rosen, Constance Milstein, Mark and Sally Ein, Kelley McCormick and Franco Nuchese
11 a.m.–2 p.m.; home of Constance Milstein

“Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner”
Hosted by “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”
1 p.m.; D.A.R. Constitution Hall
Expected celebrities: Kal Penn, “Designated Survivor”; Padma Lakshmi, “Top Chef”;  Keegan-Michael Key, “Key & Peele”; Gloria Steinem, activist; Matt Walsh, “Veep”

CBS News/Atlantic Media’s pre-dinner reception
6 p.m.; Washington Hilton, Courtyard & Gardens

Thomson Reuters pre-party/after-dinner drinks
6–7:30 p.m., until 12 a.m.;
Washington Hilton, Georgetown Room

“Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” after-party
Hosted by TBS, New York magazine and Vulture
7 p.m.–12 a.m.; W Hotel
Expected celebrities: Elvis Costello & The Imposters

White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner
8 p.m.; Washington Hilton

BuzzFeed’s “Red, White, & Banned”
8 p.m.–12:30 a.m.; Brixton

MSNBC and NBC News’s “The After Party”
10:30 p.m.; The Organization of American States

CBS News’s “The After Party”
Sette Osteria

Sunday, April 30

CNN’s “Political Hangover” brunch
10 a.m.–2 p.m.; Longview Gallery

Thomson Reuters brunch
11 a.m.–2 p.m.; Hay Adams Hotel
Celebrities expected: Contestants from Bravo’s “Top Chef”