Even in a nation with a long and noble history of brutal comedy roasts, the performance of Michelle Wolf at the White House correspondents’ dinner put the cat among the social media pigeons.
Twitter lit up on Saturday night and into Sunday with impassioned responses to the comic’s hyper-caustic japes at the expense of senior figures in the Trump administration. The annual event, traditionally conceived as a chance for government officials and reporters to let their hair down and poke fun at each other with some well-intentioned ribbing, descended into all-out acrimony.
At the center of the ruckus was White House press secretary Sarah Sanders who, sitting just feet away from the standup comic on the high table, was the butt of some of Wolf’s sharpest barbs.
The jokes, including references to Sanders lying during press briefings and to her facial make-up, provoked furious criticism from several current and former White House figures as well as prominent journalists.
The roast prompted a walkout from White House adviser Mercedes Schlapp and her husband Matt Schlapp, who chairs the American Conservative Union. “Enough of elites mocking all of us,” he tweeted.
Sean Spicer, Sanders’ predecessor as Trump’s press secretary, told the Guardian he thought Wolf’s speech was “absolutely disgusting”. Trump himself, who boycotted the dinner for a second year running, was restrained by comparison, limiting himself to criticizing the event for being a “very big, boring bust … the so-called comedian really ‘bombed’.”
Several top political reporters agreed with the criticism from Republican politicians. That was in itself highly unusual, given the extreme estrangement of the press corps from a president who constantly berates them for what he calls “fake news”.
Andrea Mitchell of NBC News called for an apology for Wolf’s speech, which she said was the worst since Don Imus embarrassed the Clintons by making reference to Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs in an after-dinner address in 1996.
Two key New York Times reporters expressed distress. Maggie Haberman, who has written some of the most excoriating dispatches on the Trump White House and has been attacked for it by the president, leapt to Sanders’ defense, praising her for absorbing the Wolf blitz rather than walking out. Peter Baker, the Times’s chief White House correspondent, said: “I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.”
Wolf – who told the Guardian in 2016 “four more years of Donald Trump jokes … will drive me insane” – answered Haberman on Twitter. “Hey mags!” she wrote. “All these jokes were about [Sanders’] despicable behavior. Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though?”
She also claimed she had not been criticizing Sanders’ looks, writing: “I said she burns facts and uses the ash to create a *perfect* smoky eye. I complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials.”
Amid contrition from reporters, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which organized the dinner, tried to assuage sore feelings without going as far as to make an apology.
Margaret Talev, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg, told CNN’s Reliable Sources she “regretted” that the 15 minutes of Wolf’s speech “are now defining four hours of what was a really wonderful, unifying night. And I don’t want the cause of unity to be undercut.”
Piling in from the other direction, there was also a mass of comment on social media defending Wolf’s first amendment right to speak as she saw fit and decrying the inability of so many people to take a joke.
The comedian Kathy Griffin, who was at the dinner, ridiculed those who said Sanders should not have been subjected to such disrespect: “Sarah was there representing Trump, on the dais, at an event with a professional comic who was hired to do a roast.”
Griffin knows a thing or two about the price comics can pay when they are deemed to have crossed a line in joking about Trump. When she posted a photo of herself last year carrying a model of Trump’s severed head, as a satirical comment on the president’s treatment of women, she was widely denounced and shunned.
The continuing furore over the dinner was, in the last analysis, thoroughly Trumpian. A few years ago, when Barack Obama was in the Oval Office, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was criticized for being a cosy club in which administration officials and journalists ate together, laughed and sang together and generally fawned over each other.
How times have changed.