April 29, 2017

The clapping had barely subsided before comedian Hasan Minhaj cracked a joke about the elephant not in the room — President Donald Trump.

“Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ dinner,” said Minhaj, the dinner’s headliner and a senior correspondent at “The Daily Show.” “My name is Hasan Minhaj, or I’ll be known in a few weeks, No. 830287.”

Within minutes of beginning his routine, he cracked wise President Trump’s boycott of the dinner.

“The leader of our country is not here. And that’s because he’s in Moscow,” Minhaj said, referencing Russian President Vladimir Putin. “As for the other guy, I think he’s in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke.”

Here are some of Minhaj’s most biting jokes, which skewered President Trump, his cabinet, the press and the often contradictory interplay between the two.

  • Referencing President Trump’s executive order that attempted to bar immigrants from Muslim-majority countries and unfounded rumors that President Obama was secretly a Muslim: “Who would have thought that with everything going on in the country right now that a Muslim would be on this stage for the ninth year in a row?”
  • On Comedy Central: “It’s basically an internship for Netflix.”
  • On White House advisor Kellyanne Conway: “I would say it is an honor to be here, but that would be an alternative fact. No one wanted to do this. So of course it landed in the hands of an immigrant.”
  • Mocking Gannett’s national newspaper: “Every time a USA Today slides underneath my door, it’s like they’re saying, ‘hey, you’re not that smart’…USA Today is what happens when the coupon section takes over the newspaper.”
  • Referencing the gory, mass murder that left scores of heroes dead in “Game of Thrones”: “Tonight is about defending the First Amendment…even though King Joffrey pulled out, it feels like the Red Wedding in here.”
  • On President Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles at Syria and drop “The Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan: “Historically, the president usually performs at the Correspondents’ Dinner, but I think I speak for all of us when I say, he’s done enough bombing this month.”
  • Referencing Conway’s now infamous “alternative facts” line: “Even if you guys groan, I’ve already hired Kellyanne Conway, she’s going to go on TV Sunday and tell everyone I killed.”
  • On Trump’s late-night tweeting: “He tweets at 3 a.m. sober. Who is tweeting at 3 a.m. sober? Donald Trump — because it’s 10 a.m. in Russia. Those are business hours.”
  • On Washington’s accelerated news cycle: “The news coming out of the White House is so stressful, I’ve been watching ‘House of Cards’ just to relax.”
  • Skewering Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “Betsy DeVos isn’t here, she’s busy curating her collection of children’s tears.”
  • Mocking former Texas Gov. Rick Perry: “Hey, 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.”
  • Referencing criticism of Steve Bannon’s nationalist views, which some have construed as a defense of nativism bordering on racism: “I do not see Steve Bannon…Not-see Steve Bannon…Nazi Steve Bannon.”
  • Calling attention to Vice President Mike Pence’s habit of not having one-on-one meals with women who aren’t his wife: “Mike Pence wanted to be here tonight, but his wife wouldn’t let him, because apparently one of these woman is ovulating.”
  • Skewering Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “Jeff Sessions couldn’t be here tonight, he was busy doing a pre-Civil War reenactment.”
  • Referencing the media’s failure to predict a Donald Trump electoral win: “Nate Silver told me there was a 74.1 percent chance of that joke killing. I believed you, Nate.”
  • On Press Secretary Sean Spicer: “Sean Spicer gives press briefings like someone is going through his browser history while he watches.”
  • Spicer, continued: “You guys are laughing, but just realize Sean Spicer has been doing PR since 1999. He’s been doing this for 18 years, and somehow his go-to move while being asked questions is to deny the Holocaust.”
  • On the lack of trust in the media: “Supporters of President Trump support him. And I know, journalists, you definitely are trying to do good work. But people still don’t trust you. Can you blame them? Unlike Anderson Cooper’s bone structure, you have been far from perfect.”
  • Exhorting the press to do a better job covering the president: “You’ve got to take your game to a whole other level. It’s like if a bunch of stripper cops tried to solve a real murder.”
  • On the Bill O’Reilly scandal at Fox News: “It finally happened, Bill O’Reilly has been fired. But then you gave him a $25 million severance package — making that the only package he won’t force a woman to touch.”
  • On anti-Islam rhetoric on Fox News: “As a Muslim, 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 people say terrible things about my family.”
  • On MSNBC’s breathless promotion of its Trump tax scoop: “I have one quick request. MSNBC, please tell Rachel Maddow to chill about Trump’s tax returns. There’s not going to be a line item in there saying ‘bribes from Russia.'”
  • On CNN’s tendency to label trivial events “breaking news”: “I’m not going to call you fake news, but everything isn’t breaking news. You can’t go to DEFCON One just because Sanjay Gupta found a new moisturizer.”
  • On CNN’s wayward attempts to solicit audience feedback: “Every time I watch CNN, it feels like you’re assigning me homework. ‘Is Trump a Russian spy? Tweet us at #AC360!’ No, you tell me! I’m watching the news!”
  • Mocking President Trump’s tendency to watch cable news: “I don’t have a solution on how to win back trust. But in the age of Trump, I know that you have to be more perfect now than ever. Because you are how the president gets his news. Not from advisers. Not from intelligence agencies. You guys.”
  • On the surreal nature of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner: “This has been one of the strangest events I have ever done in my life. I feel like I’m a tribute in The Hunger Games. If this goes poorly, Steve Bannon gets to eat me.”
  • And on a more serious note, on the importance of the First Amendment. “The president didn’t show up. Because Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that comes into his head doesn’t show up to celebrate the amendment that allows him to do it.”

Shortly before Minhaj’s remarks, the Correspondents’ Association ran a clip of Alec Baldwin — who has impersonated President Trump on “Saturday Night Live” — telling journalists to “keep up the good work.”

Minhaj was addressing a ballroom that was more subdued than in years past. With President Trump and his White House retinue boycotting the event, the dinner didn’t have quite the same drawing power it usually does. Many Hollywood celebrities, which flocked to the Washington Hilton during the Obama years, took a pass on Saturday night’s event, as did some news organizations.

Vanity Fair and The New Yorker both canceled parties surrounding the event, with Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter (a Trump adversary from decades back) announcing that “he planned to spend the weekend fishing.”

Nevertheless, the dinner was sold out, White House Correspondents’ Chief Jeff Mason said in remarks before Minhaj went on. In comments before the speech began, Mason sought to strike a conciliatory note between the Trump administration and journalists but underscored the hazards of President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric.

“It is our job to report on facts and hold leaders accountable,” Mason said, as journalists stood and applauded. “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.”

An emphasis on the importance of journalism and the First Amendment seemed to fill the vacuum that celebrity left behind. Rather than invite Hollywood celebrities, CNN and HuffPost opted to bring high school and college journalism students to the dinner. Journalists also wore pins celebrating the First Amendment, reminiscent of the “#FreeJason” pins worn last year to advocate for the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, then a political prisoner in Iran.

That focus was echoed by speakers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, legendary reporters of Watergate fame, who extolled the virtues of reporting before they presented the White House Correspondents’ Association awards.

“Incremental reporting is essential. Whenever I would go for the big picture or the whole enchilada or whatever, Bob [Woodward] would say, ‘here’s what we know now and are ready to put in the paper,'” Bernstein said.

When it was his turn to speak, Woodward told the audience a story about Bernstein’s decision to dive into an idling cab filled with the Watergate burglars and their lawyer. Woodward gave Bernstein $20, which he never got back — but his reporting partner did return with a big piece of the unfurling Watergate story.

“The point: Very aggressive reporting is often necessary,” Woodward said.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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