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White House press on defensive after Michelle Wolf torches Trump, Sanders
The White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) is taking heat the day after comedian Michelle Wolf took shots from the stage at presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
A number of observers in attendance felt the former "Daily Show" comedian went over the line with her jokes, which drew heavy conservative fire on Sunday.
White House national security adviser John Bolton slammed the event in an interview with Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday," saying he was happy not to attend.
"Just reprehensible behavior by someone addressing the gathering, and sadly it's par for the course in Washington today," Bolton said.
Fox News reporter Ed Henry called on WHCA to apologize to Sanders.
Other high-profile journalists also criticized the event, and the president of the group that organizes the dinner distanced herself from the material, though she did not offer an apology.
Margaret Talev, president of the WHCA, told Politico that some of Wolf's jokes made her "uncomfortable."
"I appreciated Sarah Sanders for joining us at the head table and her grace through the program," Talev said.
Talev said she went over to Sanders shortly after Wolf's routine.
"I told her that I knew this was a big decision whether or not to attend the dinner and whether to sit at the head table and that I really appreciated her being there, that I thought it sent an important decision about the role government and the press being able to work together," Talev said.
"Michelle Wolf is a comedian and she speaks for herself, and that is her right to do that under the free speech and the First Amendment, which we were celebrating," she told CNN's Brian Stelter on "Reliable Sources."
The association, according to Talev, does not preview or censor the entertainer's remarks.
"I think the comedian reflects on the press corps but I don't think the comedian speaks for the press corps," she said. "The press corps speaks for itself."
Later on Sunday, Talev released a stronger statement acknowledging the "dismay" from certain members over Wolf's comments and how they diverged from the organization's mission to "offer a unifying message" about upholding free speech "while honoring civility."
"Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission," Wolf said.
Her statement came after a day of pressure from critics who say Wolf's routine went too far.
"What happened last night was an atrocity," former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told Stelter.
Scaramucci said Talev should have looked Sanders "straight in the face" and apologized for Wolf's comments at the dinner.
"I have an enormous amount of respect for Margaret and what she does at the White House Correspondents' Association," Scaramucci said. "But it would have been very nice if [Sanders was] given an apology, given what happened."
In her 19-minute set, Wolf took aim at Sanders for bending the truth and her handling of White House press conferences.
"We are graced with Sarah's presence tonight," Wolf said. "Every time Sarah steps up to the podium, I get excited. I'm not really sure what we're going to get, you know? A press briefing, a bunch of lies or divided into softball teams. It's shirts and skins, and this time don't be such a little bitch, Jim Acosta."
"I actually really like Sarah. I think she's very resourceful," she continued. "But she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she's born with it, maybe it's lies."
The comments immediately drew the ire of conservative viewers.
White House Strategic Communications Director Mercedes Schlapp and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp tweeted that they had walked out during the speech.
Conservatives, like Sanders's father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and former Trump administration officials, took to Twitter and the airwaves to slam Wolf.
Various journalists also appeared to distance themselves from the dinner and from Wolf's address on Twitter.
Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, took to Twitter to question the event's merit.
"The #WHCD debacle was inevitable, destined to be either sycophantic, on one extreme, or mean spirited, on the other. Neither is a good look at a time when trust in media is tenuous. Can we finally all agree to put an end to this thing?" he tweeted.
Others echoed Pope's sentiment, voicing concerns about the rift between the media and the American public.
Other journalists called Wolf's routine "mean," while more demanded an apology for Sanders.
"Apology is owed to @PressSec and others grossly insulted ny Michelle Wolf at White House Correspondents Assoc dinner which started with uplifting heartfelt speech by @margarettalev - comedian was worst since Imus insulted Clinton's," NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell tweeted.
The Daily Mail's David Martosko said offering a public apology "would be the right thing to do."
CNN's Jim Acosta, who frequently spars with administration officials in press briefings, tweeted that he was disappointed the dinner did not address the attacks on the media.
The New York Times's Maggie Haberman praised Sanders's measured response to the routine, while sitting just feet from Wolf on stage.
Wolf responded to Haberman on Twitter, saying the jokes were about Sanders's behavior, not her appearance.
Various comedians, including Kathy Griffin and Rosie O'Donnell, jumped to Wolf's defense on Twitter, while other journalists seemingly sided with the comedian.
Wolf took to Twitter on Sunday to defend herself, saying she was not trying to attack Sanders's looks.
But, according to Wolf, her task for the night was simply to be funny.
"One of the worst things would be if people are like, 'Wow, that was thoughtful,' " Wolf told The Hill's Judy Kurtz earlier this month. "Because it's not my job to be thoughtful, it's my job to be funny."
Updated: 10:27 p.m.