Michelle Wolf

Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File

Fallout Persists Over Controversial Comedy Routine At White House Correspondents' Dinner

April 30, 2018 - 2:25 pm
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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- The fallout from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner continued to make news Monday morning, with President Donald Trump weighing in on Twitter about comedian Michelle Wolf’s controversial jokes.

Trump, who regularly lobs sharp attacks at the news media, including individual news organizations and reporters, declined to attend the journalism awards dinner for the second consecutive year. He instead held a campaign rally in Michigan.

On Monday, he called the dinner “DEAD as we know it” and also called it “a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for.”

On Sunday, Trump also called Wolf a “filthy ‘comedian’” who “totally bombed.”

In her controversial performance, Wolf most controversially took on White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, saying she was "star struck" to see her at the dinner. "I love you as Aunt Lydia in 'Handmaid's Tale,'" Wolf said, referencing a character in the Hulu series.

"Every time Sarah stands up to the podium, I'm not really sure what you're going to get," Wolf said. "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 b**** Jim Acosta."

She added that she thinks Sanders is "resourceful -- she burns facts and then uses that ash to create the perfect smoky eye. Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's lies."

Wolf then went in on Sanders, saying she never knows "what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is it Sarah Sanders, is it Cousin Huckabee, is Auntie Huckabee Sanders? What's an Uncle Tom for white women who disappoint other white women?" She answered her own joke, that it was Ann Coulter.

The “smoky eye” comment led many to accuse Wolf of trashing Sanders’ looks.

Wolf also roasted Vice President Mike Pence, saying she did not want Trump to be impeached because Pence would become president.

"Just when you think Trump is awful, you remember Mike Pence," she said.

She also mentioned that Pence won't go to dinner alone with a woman who isn't his wife. "When people first heard this, they were like 'that's crazy!'" Wolf said. "But now in this current climate they're like, 'that's a good witness.'"

Just before taking on Pence, Wolf had joked that she believed Trump was broke. She asked the audience to say "how broke is he" before she railed off a few jokes.

Wolf also did not spare the news media. She took on the cable networks, first saying that CNN "loves breaking news" and "broke it."

Then she turned her attention to Fox News, making a dark joke about its sexual harassment scandals. "Ladies, cover your drinks," she said.

Wolf said people wanted her to make jokes about Sean Hannity, but she couldn't because "this night is for journalists."

Wolf made some jokes about MSNBC's slogan "This Is Who We Are," comparing it to the NBC show "This Is Us."

She said congratulations to "Morning Joe" hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, who are engaged. "It's like when a #Me Too works out," Wolf joked, referencing the hashtag women use to describe sexual harassment.

She then called Rachel Maddow "Peter Pan," saying that "instead of never growing up, she never gets to the point." The "Our Cartoon President" sketch had also teased Maddow's long lead-ins.

Wolf then took on Megyn Kelly, referencing Kelly's insistence on Fox News that Santa is white.

Wolf said she would spare print media because "it's illegal to go after endangered species."

But perhaps her harshest words were for the media, saying that nobody in the room wants to admit that Trump "helped make all of you."

"He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you're profiting off him - and if you're going to profit off him, you should at least give him money," she said.

Sean Spicer, who preceded Sanders at the White House lectern, tweeted after dinner that the night "was a disgrace."

Others, including Ed Henry, chief national correspondent for Fox News and a former association president, and MSNBC's "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, called on the association to apologize to Sanders. Brzezinski has been the subject of personal attacks by Trump. Henry also called on Wolf to apologize.

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, tweeted that he and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, director of strategic communications at the White House, walked out of the dinner. "Enough of elites mocking all of us," he said.

CBS News White House Correspondent Steven Portnoy was at the dinner. He told WCBS 880’s Wayne Cabot and Paul Murnane on Monday that many people stopped laughing at a certain point during Wolf’s routine, and he said the event as a whole has lost its meaning.

“We’ve been having this dinner for about 100 years now. It was designed to be collegial. It’s meant to advance the cause of journalism and highlight some of the year’s greatest examples of it. People get awards, scholarships get handed out, and frankly, the dinner was originally designed to – as unseemly as this sounds – celebrate ourselves for all the hard work that we do every day on behalf of the American people. It turned to be a debacle, because we seem to have given everyone in this country a reason to be upset,” he said. "That is not the goal of the dinner.”

Portnoy said in the wake of the dinner, seemingly everyone in the country is angry about something having to do with it.

“Either you’re angry today because the association hired a comedian who told vicious jokes about Sarah Sanders while she sat right there, or you’re angry because many of us in the press corps publicly said that we regret what happened, or, perhaps, you’re angry because we hold this dinner in the first place and give our sources drinks in the hope they’ll tell us things so we can tell you things,” he said.

Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi was also at the dinner Saturday. He told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Michael Wallace what was going through his mind as he listened to Wolf.

“Well, she was in the tradition of the kind of edgy comics that are around today, and that actually, the White House Correspondents’ Association tries to avoid,” Farhi said. “They didn’t avoid her this year, and I think they’re kind of paying a price for it, because she certainly was edgy.”

Farhi declined to weigh in on whether Wolf crossed a line, but many people did not think she was especially funny. But she did have some supporters too.

“Some of the jokes that she told really landed with a thud,” he said. “But I think there’s a number of people who really liked what she had to say, and the fact that, you know, she was tough on people in the administration, including the president, is kind of what you want a comedian to do, so a mixed bag at the very least.”

Farhi said he did not interpret Wolf’s comments about Sanders as an attack on her looks.

“It did not hit me that way,” he said. “I know people felt that way, but it really, what she did was attack Sanders for what she says is lying. It wasn’t really a personal attack on her or her appearance, as it was characterized. It was more so, ‘Sarah Sanders is a liar and here’s a joke about that.’”

Farhi said it is likely that the dinner next year will not take the same risks with a comedian. But he disagreed with a column by his Washington Post colleague, Margaret Sullivan, who said it is time to end the correspondents’ dinner altogether.

“This is not a reason to end the dinner. It may be a reason to change the format up, but I don’t see anything terribly wrong with any group getting together and having a night in which they celebrate themselves, the First Amendment, or whatever it is,” he said. “And you’ll also remember this is a fundraiser – a lot of it goes to journalism scholarships, so there’s a good cause behind it.”

Portnoy also said he does not support ending the dinner, which has been held since 1921. But he thinks the White House Correspondents’ Association “needs to think very hard about what the event has become, and it has become something larger than it was intended to be, which is a celebration of our hard work.”

Portnoy noted that all of the attention has focused on Wolf – whose name he said he did not even retain – when there was actually a powerful moment earlier in the dinner that has gone largely unnoticed.

“Before the comic took the stage, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News, gave a tribute to her late father and mother. Her father, she said, came to this country from Soviet Bulgaria. He escaped Communism and had conservative tendencies. He would debate politics over the dinner table with her American mother, who was more liberal, and Margaret said that following those debates over the dinner table inspired her to become a journalist – because she appreciated and valued how in this country, her father told her, he could express his own thoughts without fear of being beaten or jailed,” Portnoy said. “For that, she got a standing ovation, and that was the part of Saturday night that I will always remember.”

Talev, Bloomberg News' senior White House correspondent, later said she didn't want a dinner celebrating the constitutional right to free speech to be overshadowed by the ensuing uproar over Wolf's jokes.

"My only regret is that to some extent those 15 minutes 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," Talev said Sunday on CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Talev said she spoke to Sanders after Wolf's routine and "I told her that I knew that this was a big decision whether or not to attend the dinner, whether to sit at the head table and that I really appreciated her being there."

"I thought it sent an important message about the role of government and the press and being able to communicate with one another and work together," Talev added.

No Trump administration officials attended the dinner last year after Trump decided to skip it. Many were in the audience Saturday night, however, including counselor Kellyanne Conway, herself a target of Wolf, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Sanders sat at the head table with association board members.

Talev said that, by tradition, the association does not review the comedian's monologue before it is delivered.

"We don't censor it. We don't even see it," she said.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)