The White House Correspondents’ Dinner wasted no time addressing the “elephant that’s not in the room,” as event host and The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj put it Saturday night: President Trump’s refusal to attend.
“The leader of our country is not here … and that’s because he lives in Moscow. It is a very long flight. It would be hard for Vlad to make it,” Minhaj joked to the crowd at Washington’s Hilton Hotel. “As for the other guy, I think he’s in Pennsylvania ‘cause he can’t take a joke.”
And, like all past presidents, there were many made at his expense. But before the entertainment portion of the evening got started, White House Correspondents’ Association President Jess Mason kicked off the night with a message directed at the president, the first to not attend the dinner since Ronald Reagan in 1981 (he was recovering from an assassination attempt).
“The tradition of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a long one. Journalists, presidents, cabinet members, lawmakers, and diplomats have shown up for decades and demonstrated that even though we have vastly different roles, government officials and reporters can come together for one night,” Mason said following a video celebrating the role of journalism and the press corps’ relationship with the White House. “Tonight looks a little different, but the values that underpin this dinner have not changed. In fact, I think they have been reinforced. We are here to celebrate good journalism, we are here to celebrate the press, not the presidency, and I am happy to report for anyone who’s interested that this dinner is sold out.”
Noting that press access under President Trump “has been very good” — “the press is still in the White House Briefing Room, and we are still on Air Force One” — Mason said that doesn’t change the current administration’s penchant for sharing its negative views of media.
“Nevertheless, we can not ignore the rhetoric that has been employed by the president about who we are and what we do. Freedom of the press is a building block of our democracy. Undermining that by seeking to de-legitimize journalists is dangerous to a healthy republic,” he said to cheers from the crowd in Washington’s Hilton Hotel, earning a standing ovation for what followed. “It is our job to report on facts and to hold leaders accountable; that is who we are. We are not fake news, we are not failing news organizations, and we are not the enemy of the American people.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Washington Post Associate Editor and investigative reporter Bob Woodward during his remarks.
Turning the event over to Minhaj, he got right to the jokes in his first moments at the mic.
“Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. My name is Hasan Minhaj, or as I’ll be known in a few weeks, #830287,” the 31-year-old comedian, who majored in political science at the University of California, Davis, said. “Who woulda thought, with everything going on in the country right now, that a Muslim would be standing on this stage…for the ninth year in a row, baby! We had eight years of Barack, what’s another year?”
Alluding to the many comedians who reportedly didn’t want to host the dinner because of Trump, who at the time had not yet said he wouldn’t be attending, Minhaj explains how he came to get the job.
“I would say it is an honor to be here, but that would be an alternative fact. It is not,” he said, his words trailing. “No one wanted to do this, so, of course, it lands in the hands of an immigrant. It’s how it always goes down. No one wanted this gig! No one! Don Rickles died just so you wouldn’t ask him to do this gig.”
Not much was off limits in the next roughly 25-minute roast that followed. “A lot of people told me, ‘Hasan, if you go after the administration it would be petty, unfair, and childish.’ In other words, presidential. So here we go,” he said, before launching into his comedy attack that included, of course, the president and his cabinet, but also major news organizations. And he did it all while managing to include several pop culture references, including Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, even Mel Gibson. See our highlights below.
Pop (Culture) Goes the Weasel
“I am truly honored to be here, even though all of Hollywood pulled out now that King Joffrey is president and it feels like the Red Wedding in here.”
“The news coming out of the White House is so stressful, I’ve been watching House of Cards just to relax. I’m just like, Oh man, a congressman pushed a journalist in front of a moving train? That’s quaint.”
“You guys are definitely trying to do good work, but a lot of people don’t trust you right now? And can you blame them? Unlike Anderson Cooper’s bone structure, you guys are far from perfect. Remember election night? I mean, that was your Steve Harvey Miss Universe moment.”
“This has been one of the strangest events I’ve done in my life – like, I feel like I’m a tribute in The Hunger Games. If this goes poorly, Steve Bannon gets to eat me.”
“Has anyone seen Rick Perry since he became Energy Secretary? I have a feeling he’s sitting in a room full of plutonium waiting to become Spider-Man. That’s just my hunch.”
The Spice-Man (Didn’t) Cometh
“Okay, enough about House Slytherin, we are here to talk about the truth. It is 2017 and we are living in the golden age of lying. Now’s the time to be a liar, and Donald Trump is liar-in-chief. And remember, you guys are Public Enemy No. 1. You are his biggest enemy. Journalists, ISIS, normal-length ties. And somehow you’re the bad guys. That’s why you’ve got to keep your foot on the gas, especially with Sean Spicer, who is not here tonight because I think he’s at home googling how to fake his own death, but I love it when you give it to Sean Spicer. Sean Spicer gives press briefings like someone is going through his browser history while he watches. Just panicked like, ‘No, wait, stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop shaking your head! Stop shaking your head! We’ll talk about this tomorrow!’ It is the best.
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Sean Spicer’s been doing PR since 1999. He’s been doing his job for 18 years, and somehow after 18 years his go-to move when you ask him a tough question is denying the Holocaust. That is insane. How many people do you know that can turn a press briefing into a full-on Mel Gibson traffic stop? Only the Spice-man. Only the Spice-man.”
All the President’s Men — and a Woman
“Betsy DeVos couldn’t be here. She’s busy curating her collection of childrens’ tears.”
“Now, a lot of people think Steve Bannon is the reason Donald Trump dog whistles to racists, and that is just not true. Ask Steve Bannon. Is Steve Bannon here? I do not see Steve Bannon. I do not see Steve Bannon…do not see Steve Bannon…not see Steve Bannon…Nazi Steve Bannon.”
“Mike Pence wanted to be here tonight but his wife wouldn’t let him because apparently one of you ladies is ovulating, soooo…good job, ladies. Because of you, we couldn’t hang out with Mike Pence. [Mouths ‘Thank you.’]”
“Jeff Sessions couldn’t be here tonight. He was busy doing a pre-Civil War reenactment. On his RSVP he just wrote: ‘No!’ Just, ‘Nooooo!’ Which happens to be his second favorite n-word.”
Some “Press”-ing Jabs
“Fox News is here. I’m amazed you guys even showed up. How are you here in public? It’s hard to trust you guys when you backed a guy like Bill O’Reilly for years. But it finally happened – Bill O’Reilly has been fired. But then you gave him a $25 million severance package, making it the only package he won’t force a woman to touch.”
“I like to watch Fox News for the same reason I like to play Call of Duty. Sometimes I like to turn my brain off and watch strangers insult my family and heritage.”
“MSNBC is here tonight, and I’m glad you guys are here tonight – that way if I’m bombing, Brian Williams will describe it as ‘stunning.’”
“It’s hard to trust you guys when you send us so many mixed messages. On one hand, you tell us the prison industrial complex is the problem and then you air five straight hours of Lockup. You can’t be mad at corporations profiting off minorities in prison when you’re a corporation profiting off minorities in prison.”
“MSNBC, Please tell Rachel Maddow to chill about Trump’s tax returns. I don’t know what you think you’ll find in there, but there isn’t an item that just says ‘Bribes from Russia.’ That’s not how it works. You’re like, ‘Oh, I found the 1040 USSR.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
“Now, I had a lot more MSNBC jokes, but I don’t want to just ramble on. Otherwise, I might get a show on MSNBC.”
“My favorite entertainment channel is in the building tonight – CNN is here, baby. Now, you guys have some really weird trust issues going on with the public. I’m not going to call you fake news, but everything isn’t breaking news.”
“Every time I watch CNN it feels like you’re assigning me homework. ‘Is Trump a Russian spy?’ I don’t know, you tell me. ‘Tweet us at AC360.’ No, you tell me. I’m watching the news, but it feels like I’m watching CNN watch the news.”
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Right(s) By My Side
“Only in America can a first generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president, the orange man behind the Muslim ban. It’s a sign to the rest of the world … even the president is not beyond the reach of the 1st Amendment. But the president didn’t show up because Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it. Think about it, it’s almost 11 p.m. — in four hours Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minaj bombed at this dinner and he’ll be doing it completely sober and that’s his right. And I’m proud that all of us are here tonight to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”
Check out Minhaj’s full remarks from the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner above, and click here for highlights from the Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s ‘Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.’