A Trumpless White House correspondents’ dinner — now what?
© Getty Images

President Trump’s decision to skip next month’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is causing major rumblings, with some members of the media privately wondering whether the commander in chief is winning the PR battle surrounding the annual fete.

Trump, who has a contentious and often hostile relationship with the press, is set to be the first president in more than three decades not to attend the high-profile event.

The dinner raises money for journalism students but in the last decade has become a red-carpet affair where members of the media and their high-powered sources pal around for a night with Hollywood A-listers.

This year’s dinner was already expected to see a radical shift under Trump — even before the president announced in a tweet last week that he wouldn’t attend the April 29 soiree at the Washington Hilton.


Trump’s presidency has divided Americans, and celebrities have generally sided against him.

Questions about whether big stars would show up were being raised even before Bloomberg, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker pulled the plug on their usual dinner-related parties.

Members of the media have also been asking themselves if they should show up at a dinner for a president who has called the press an "enemy of the American people."

Trump’s decision to skip out means it will be the first White House correspondents’ dinner without the president since 1981, when Ronald Reagan was recovering after being shot in an assassination attempt.

“It will be different, that’s for sure,” White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) President Jeff Mason told ITK when asked about any impact Trump’s absence might have on the black-tie gathering.

“But the overall mission of the dinner is going to be on full display regardless of who is sitting on the stage. And that’s what we’re focused on. The dinner will be celebrating the First Amendment and celebrating the good work of our members, and lifting up our scholarship winners, as it does every year.”

Insiders were not surprised by Trump’s decision.

“I wouldn't say it was the outcome we were hoping for, but at the same time, it wasn't shocking,” one WHCA board member told The Hill.

But some WHCA members say it’s hardly been business as usual this year in planning for a dinner that has divided the group into two camps.

The “we don’t need Trump” crowd sees the president-less gala as a way to “free people up to do the dinner in a way that’s more true to its original purpose,” said a current WHCA member who’s not involved in the planning.

“There’s a sense of proud defiance,” within that group, according to the same person. “People are saying it wasn’t the attendance of the president that bestowed some type of legitimacy on this event."

The other side views it differently, that “without the gravitas of having the president there, it’s likely to lose some of its luster, people may not pay as close attention to it, the celebrities may not come, and it just won’t be as much as like an A-list, set-your-calendar event as it’s been for many years," the member said.

There’s also chatter about whether the White House will send an official representative to the affair. Top administration officials routinely attend the event, adding to its networking potential.

“It would be a snub if the White House did not send the press secretary to a dinner celebrating the journalism that the White House press corps does,” the WHCA source said. “On the other hand, if Trump’s decided he’s going to send a signal by not attending this … you could easily see how [press secretary Sean Spicer] could decide to skip it as well.”

Spicer didn’t return ITK’s request for comment on whether he’d attend.

“We haven’t sort of made any additional plans or had discussions yet about any changes we’re going to make after the tweet we saw from the president,” Mason, the WHCA president, said. “I’m sure other White House officials will attend, for sure.”

Julie Mason, a WHCA member and a board member from 2009 to 2012, said she thinks “some” White House officials will wind up attending. 

“I mean, I hope they do. It’s a great opportunity,” she said.

Mason — no relation to Jeff Mason — hosts SiriusXM’s “The Press Pool” and says the Hollywood star-packed dinners of years past, with everyone from George Clooney to Kim Kardashian on the guest lists, had gotten to be “too much” and “out of control.”

“We really lost a sense of why we have the dinner,” Mason said. “This feels like an opportunity to refocus on the prime mission of the Correspondents’ Association and the dinner.”

CNN, one of the media organizations Trump has repeatedly criticized as "fake news," announced Tuesday that it would be inviting journalism students to its WHCA table this year in lieu of celebrities.

One former Obama press shop worker praised the dinner, saying, “Yes, there’s tons of glitz and glamour, and celebrity, and nonstop parties, and champagne, and buffets — but it was also a moment where whatever hysteria was happening in Washington at the time, people took the time to put aside whatever sort of political battle that’s happening and just sit down and have dinner.”

The same person criticized how the hoopla surrounding the dinner is being handled by journalists and news organizations alike, saying, “The press continues to get the shit kicked out of it, and this is just like another perceived sign of weakness.” 

Trump and his team have called the media the “opposition party,” accusing news organizations of lying and having “evil” intentions

The White House took heat last week for barring certain publications, including The Hill, from an on-the-record question-and-answer session, saying the organizations were pushing “false narratives.”

Julie Mason says the breathless and intense scrutiny of this year’s dinner — including TBS star Samantha Bee holding an “alternative” event in Washington the same night — has been tiresome. 

“It’s kind of exhausting,” she said. “The White House Correspondents’ Association is just a couple hundred people, and people who have never been to the dinner or have no connection to our association are the ones with the strongest opinions about how it ought to be and what we have to do and how it should go.

“It’s like, you know what, this is our annual awards banquet. It’s become such public property, and it’s just exhausting to hear columnists denouncing it, saying we should boycott our own dinner and harrumph. Like, step off.”

Trump's decision not to show "just takes the temperature way down,” Mason said.

“And everyone can just go gossip about something else for awhile.”

—Amie Parnes contributed.