Biden roasts Trump (in a serious way) at annual press dinner

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There were some 2,600 people at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. But, really, it came down to only two men: Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Washington’s annual mashup of political humor and earnest paeans to the free press is typically a good-natured collection of one-liners and affectionate jabs at friends and enemies alike. But it was the leading 2024 presidential contenders who loomed largest — one in the Washington Hilton hotel ballroom, the other who definitely, positively, probably was not watching from Mar-a-Lago. Unless, of course, he was.

“The 2024 election is in full swing and, yes, age is an issue,” President Biden told the black-tie crowd. “I’m a grown man running against a 6-year-old.”

“Can we just acknowledge how refreshing it is,” comedian Colin Jost later added, “to see a president of the United States at an event that doesn’t begin with a bailiff saying ‘all rise!’”

For most of the evening, Trump ignored the dinner and posted instead about presidential immunity and political witch hunts. Shortly after 1 a.m., he finally chimed in on Truth Social: “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was really bad. Colin Jost BOMBED, and Crooked Joe was an absolute disaster! Doesn’t get much worse than this!”

So, basically, another day on the campaign trail.

But for the denizens of Washington’s political media, it was a special occasion. The correspondents’ dinner is ostensibly a playful celebration of the codependent relationship between Washington politicians and reporters who spend the rest of the year covering them and deadly serious issues: Trump’s legal trials, looming uncertainty about what will happen in November (and beyond). The Ukraine war. The Israel-Gaza war.

It proved hard to put all that aside for the night. Especially Gaza. Pro-Palestinian protesters surrounded the entrance outside of the hotel, shouting chants such as “Western media you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” and confronting guests arriving to the dinner in their tuxedos and gowns. Some attendees were followed by tight circles of protesters yelling “Shame!” inches from their faces until they could get behind police.

“I came in through a different entrance, so I didn’t hear exactly what they are chanting,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), running up an escalator to the lobby. “But there are tens of thousands of people being blown to bits in Gaza, so I understand why they are protesting. I stand with the movement — depending on what they are saying.”

The experience of walking the gantlet of activists seemed to have left a lot of people somewhat stunned. But inside the ballroom, it was all smiles and hugs and back slaps.

Watch President Biden’s full speech at the 2024 White House correspondents’ dinner. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) charmed everyone, wearing a big smile and a “FREE EVAN” pin in honor of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter imprisoned in Russia. Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) gave a report on his own encounter with the protesters outside: “I asked them about what was happening in Sudan. And they yelled louder. And then I asked them about the concentration camps full of Uyghurs. And they yelled louder. And then I went inside.” Olivia Nuzzi, a political reporter for New York Magazine, got off a presidential zinger of her own: “I can’t hear a thing in here — I feel like Biden.”

Biden’s own zingers were directed almost entirely at his opponent.

“Trump’s so desperate he started reading those bibles he’s selling,” the president said. “Then he got to the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ That’s when he put it down and said, ‘This book’s not for me.’”

But the president soon dispensed with the yuks and pivoted to what felt like a stump speech about the clear and present danger posed by Trump and his movement. He called on the journalists in the room to report “truth over lies.” He implored them to move past the election horse race stories and focus on American democracy. “The stakes couldn’t be higher,” he said. No punchline.

Officially, the evening is nonpartisan, and the only toast of the night goes to the sitting president regardless of party affiliation. Unofficially, the dinner has always been perceived as a hotbed of Washington elites who lean left, regardless of media affiliation.

Trump, who was famously roasted by President Barack Obama at the 2011 dinner, never attended the event as president. His relentless criticism of the mainstream media caused many news organizations to threaten a boycott of the dinner in 2017; Trump announced he would not attend. He skipped two following years and even counterprogrammed with a MAGA rally instead. The party soldiered on, reinforcing a commitment to the role of a free press in a democracy, and many breathed a not-so-discreet sigh of relief when the crowd resumed in 2022 after the worst of the pandemic with Biden carrying the torch.

The only Trump spotted at this year’s festivities was daughter-in-law Lara Trump, recently crowned co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Her father-in-law wasn’t in the building, but comic impressionist Matt Friend emerged from the crowd with a Trump impersonation — as well as sendups of Bernie Sanders, Mitch McConnell and Obama. He also made the first (and, surprisingly, only) dead-dog joke of the night.

“I am killing this dinner harder than Kristi Noem kills the puppies,” Friend said in his Trump voice, riffing off the news that the Republican governor of South Dakota, in a forthcoming book, admits to shooting her 14-month-old dog because she was “untrainable” and aggressive.

Let’s face it: It’s a tough room for a comedian. Jost, co-anchor of SNL’s Weekend Update, sat at the head table next to the president and nearby first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and WHCA President Kelly O’Donnell, senior White House correspondent for NBC News. His speech came after Biden’s and felt like one of his SNL bits: Some jokes got laughs, others landed awkwardly.

There were a few jabs at Biden, a “decent” man who Jost said reminds him of his beloved grandfather, a Staten Island firefighter. There were also some uneven one-liners about the press, but the press never laughs at itself, so it’s hard to know whether they were good or bad jokes.

Jost took several swipes at the former president, too: “I love that Trump’s two attacks on Biden are that he’s a senile old man and a criminal mastermind. I think you’ve got to pick one. Personally, I don’t know any criminal masterminds who bike to get ice cream.” On the courtroom drawings that have emerged from the trials: “Every sketch of Trump looks like the Grinch had sex with the Lorax.”

Colin Jost headlined the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 27. (Video: The Washington Post)

Jost brought the evening’s most glamorous celebrity: movie star Scarlett Johansson, whom he married in 2020. What started a century ago as an annual gathering of reporters and their subjects morphed into the “Nerd Prom” 35 years ago — a red carpet extravaganza where news organizations battle to host administration officials, Hollywood A-listers, corporate heavyweights and anyone else basking in their 15 minutes of fame. The crowd has swelled to approximately 2,600 people, including a few who actually work as White House correspondents.

With some exceptions, this year’s guest list fell solidly into B-list territory: Jon Hamm, Chris Pine, Keri Russell, Molly Ringwald, Rosario Dawson, Jon Cryer, Caitlyn Jenner, Billy Porter, Lorne Michaels.

Before the speeches, the WHCA handed out its awards for excellence. The award for overall excellence went to Barak Ravid of Axios, Peter Baker of the New York Times received the print award for deadline reporting, and Tamara Keith of NPR received the broadcast award in the same category — all singled out for stories following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack in Israel. Doug Mills of the Times got the award for visual journalism for a striking photo of Biden, and the award for courage and accountability went to The Washington Post for coverage on the impact of assault rifles and mass shootings.

The evening ended, as it always does: With an impassioned defense of democracy and the critical role of the press in preserving it.

Jost had his own thoughts about the media. “Your words speak truth to power. Your words bring light to the darkness.” Then he paused and grinned, “Most importantly, your words train the AI programs that will soon replace you.”

Biden ended with a toast of his own: “To a free press. To an informed citizenry. To an America where freedom and democracy endure. God bless America.”

Ben Terris, Jesús Rodríguez, Will Sommer, Jeremy Barr and Kara Voght contributed to this report.

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