President Trump’s absence for the second year in a row from the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner may end up being the least controversial thing about Saturday night’s gathering of the White House press corps.
Chatter online amongst Washington, D.C., journalists and some in the administration’s orbit after the event was full of criticism for comedian Michelle Wolf, who was the evening’s headliner; criticism and soul-searching about the annual event itself; and an effort by former White House press secretary Sean Spicer to pressure the leadership of the White House Correspondents’ Association into answering for Wolf’s vulgar, personal jabs leveled primarily at the president and his inner circle.
The comedian spoke for roughly 20 minutes to a ballroom full of Washington’s top journalists and political operatives in remarks too lewd in many respects to be repeated here. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote Wolf’s remarks “swerved from raunchy to downright nasty.”
“She was particularly hard on the women associated with Trump,” Farhi also wrote, adding “several cracks about [White House press secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders landed poorly.” (Courtesy of two of Farhi’s colleagues at the Post, here’s a list of Wolf’s “harshest” jokes.) And Politico observed of Wolf’s performance that “it was a risque and uneven routine at first met with laughs but often greeted by awkward silence.”
The comedic routine laced with sexual innuendo and, at times, dominated by outright vulgarities was directed primarily at Republicans and conservatives — a fact not lost on those in the room who expressed their displeasure on Twitter afterward.
“My wife @mercedesschlapp and I walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner. Enough of elites mocking all of us,” Matt Schlapp posted on Twitter just before 11 p.m. Schlapp is the chairman of the American Conservative Union and his wife, Mercedes, is part of the White House’s communications team.
Former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus called the night an “R/X rated spectacle that started poorly and ended up in the bottom of the canyon. Another victory for @realDonaldTrump for not attending and proving his point once again. The room was uncomfortable. Trump lovers and even a large number of Trump haters were pretty miserable.”
Spicer’s critique was more pointed. “Tonight’s #WHCD was a disgrace,” the former Trump spokesman said on Twitter.
The criticism was joined by some well-known political journalists who sounded off both about Wolf’s remarks and the nature of the event more broadly.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was the particular target of harsh treatment by Wolf — as Sanders sat on the dais not far from the lectern where Wolf was speaking. Afterward, some of the journalists from outlets known to spar with the White House or be on the receiving end of pointed attacks directly from the president spoke out on Sanders’ behalf.
“That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive,” tweeted Maggie Haberman of The New York Times. (Haberman said on Twitter that she did not attend the event in person but had watched it on TV.)
“Lots of critics but she has always been decent and professional to me — if not entirely forthcoming,” The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey posted on Twitter about Sanders, attaching Haberman’s tweet about the Trump spokeswoman.
“The spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don’t burn,” said Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News, “Reporters who work with her daily appreciate that @presssec was there.” Like Dawsey, O’Donnell included Haberman’s tweet praising Sanders’ composure under fire.
As Haberman’s tweet had, Baker’s set off a series of responses, subtweets and amens from fellow journalists.
“Couldn’t agree more,” CNN’s Jeff Zeleny posted on Twitter, “So much important and amazing journalism this year — that should be the focus, when truth matters and is needed more than ever. It was an embarrassment in the room and surely to the audience at home.”
“He’s talking about the White House Correspondents Assn dinner,” tweeted Fox News political analyst Brit Hume. “He’s right,” Hume said, attaching Baker’s tweet.
“The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a deeply flawed event that doesn’t do what it aspires to do and is serious need of retooling,” wrote Robert Yoon, a political research expert and former longtime employee of CNN’s political unit in D.C., wrote online, also referencing Baker’s tweet.
Other journalists saw broader political implications stemming from the controversial remarks.
“Michelle Wolf — and the WHCD — really played into Trump’s hand tonight. Trump is vulgar and mean-spirited, but that doesn’t mean that Wolf needed to be the same,” tweeted D.C. fixture and longtime political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
John Ward of Yahoo News called the comedy routine “a political gift to the Trump admin[istration].”
Echoing Ward, Rothenberg and Baker, Meg Kinnard of The Associated Press saw very specific implications for journalists, especially those working and reporting in predominantly Republican states. Saturday night’s event “made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us, even wider,” Kinnard tweeted. “And those of us based in the red states who work hard every day to prove our objectivity will have to deal with it.”
In a trio of tweets early Sunday morning Spicer sought to elicit a response from the White House Correspondents’ Association to the criticism Wolf had received.
Comedian Kathy Griffin, who has herself been embroiled in controversy over her past comments about the president, took up Wolf’s defense and responded to Baker and Zeleny.
“Then don’t have a comic do a roast,” Griffin told the two longtime White House reporters on Twitter, “If you want to focus on the journalism do a boring awards show. Journalism is all about the 1st amendment..If you don’t see the import of what @michelleisawolf did tonight then you don’t get it.”
For her part, Wolf responded to Spicer calling the event a “disgrace” with a simple “Thank you!” on Twitter. And the comedian also challenged Haberman’s critique, suggesting The New York Times White House reporter was harboring unspoken concerns about Sanders’ appearance.
The controversy over Wolf seemed to steal headlines which the president had seemingly tried to steal for himself by absenting himself from the dinner for a second consecutive year and going to Michigan for a campaign rally instead.
In his remarks there earlier Saturday evening, Trump had called the press “very dishonest people” and “fake news.” He called the dinner in D.C. “phony” and said he had much preferred to be in Washington Township, Mich., rather than back in the nation’s capital in a ballroom full of the journalists who cover him and his administration.
He told the enthusiastic crowd of supporters that had he been at the dinner in the other Washington, he would’ve been forced to smile through attacks on him or face negative stories afterward about not being a good sport while being roasted by Wolf.
“You know, there’s no winning,” he said over cheers.
Back in D.C., Matt and Mercedes Schlapp articulated Trump’s concerns more philosophically — concerns widely shared by conservatives across the country who see themselves as losing out in a broader culture war despite their electoral victories in the Trump era.
“America was watching and it’s why they hate the swamp,” Matt Schlapp said in a tweet addressed to Sanders.
“It’s why America hates the out of touch leftist media elite,” Mercedes Schlapp tweeted, referencing her husband’s tweet about “the swamp.”
U.S. Set To Announce New Sanctions On Six Individuals Linked To Hong Kong Mass Arrests
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) – The United States is set to announce fresh sanctions on Friday on six individuals connected to the mass arrests earlier this month of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Hong Kong police on Jan. 5 arrested 53 people in dawn raids on democracy activists in the biggest crackdown since China last year imposed a security law which opponents say is aimed at quashing dissent in the former British colony.
U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo last week warned of fresh sanctions in response to the arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. That warning came a day after supporters of Republican President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 stormed Congress in a bid to overturn his November election defeat, prompting China’s state media to accuse U.S. politicians of “double standards.”
Pompeo also said last week the United States would also explore restrictions against the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in the United States.
Action on Friday would come just days before Trump is due to leave office and be succeeded by Democrat Joe Biden next Wednesday and would be the latest in a series targeting China, which analysts see as a bid driven by Pompeo to lock in a tough approach to Beijing.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump has pursued hard-line policies toward China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus. Relations plummeted to their worst level in decades when he ramped up rhetoric in his unsuccessful November re-election campaign.
His administration has already imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their actions involving the pro-democracy movement and other alleged rights abuses, and last July declared an end to the territory’s privileged economic status under U.S. law.
The Trump administration took another swipe at China and its biggest companies on Thursday, imposing sanctions on officials and companies for alleged misdeeds in the South China Sea and imposing an investment ban on nine more firms.
Last Saturday, Pompeo said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and counterparts in Taiwan, a move that greatly angered Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province. (Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
Louisiana Congressman-Elect Luke Letlow Dead From COVID-19
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Luke Letlow, Louisiana’s incoming Republican member of the U.S. House, died Tuesday night from complications related to COVID-19 only days before being sworn into office. He was 41.
Letlow spokesman Andrew Bautsch confirmed the congressman-elect’s death at Ochsner-LSU Health Shreveport.
“The family appreciates the numerous prayers and support over the past days but asks for privacy during this difficult and unexpected time,” Bautsch said in a statement. “A statement from the family along with funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time.”
Louisiana’s eight-member congressional delegation called Letlow’s death devastating.
“Luke had such a positive spirit, and a tremendously bright future ahead of him. He was looking forward to serving the people of Louisiana in Congress, and we were excited to welcome him to our delegation where he was ready to make an even greater impact on our state and our nation,” they said in a statement.
The state’s newest congressman, set to take office in January, was admitted to a Monroe hospital on Dec. 19 after testing positive for the coronavirus disease. He was later transferred to the Shreveport facility and placed in intensive care.
Letlow, from the small town of Start in Richland Parish, was elected in a December runoff election for the 5th District U.S. House seat representing central and northeastern regions of the state, including the cities of Monroe and Alexandria.
He was to fill the seat being vacated by his boss, Republican Ralph Abraham. Letlow had been Abraham’s chief of staff and ran with Abraham’s backing for the job.
Gov. John Bel Edwards urged people to pray for Letlow’s family.
“COVID-19 has taken Congressman-elect Letlow from us far too soon,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “I am heartbroken that he will not be able to serve our people as a U.S. representative, but I am even more devastated for his loving family.”
Before working for Abraham, Letlow had worked for former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Jindal’s one-time chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, described Letlow on Twitter as “a good man with a kind heart and a passion to serve. He loved Louisiana and his family. He was a brother and I’m heart broken he’s gone.”
Letlow is survived by his wife, Julia Barnhill Letlow, and two children.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican and doctor who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year and has since recovered, posted in a Twitter video: “It just, just, just, just brings home COVID can kill. For most folks it doesn’t, but it truly can. So, as you remember Luke, his widow, his children in your prayers, remember as well to be careful with COVID.”
Trump Adviser Rudy Giuliani Captured In Compromising Position With Woman He Was Told Was A Reporter In ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’
The forthcoming “Borat” sequel reportedly features Rudy Giuliani engaging in provocative behavior with a woman he’d been told was a reporter.
The adviser to President Trump appears to have unknowingly participated in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” the comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen that is poised to be released Friday on Amazon Prime Video.
According to multiple reports, Giuliani sits down for an interview at a New York hotel with the character Tutar, Borat’s teenage daughter who’s posing as a TV journalist and was played by 24-year-old actress Maria Bakalova.
The 76-year-old former New York mayor is heard complimenting the supposed reporter and following her to a bedroom, where eventually he stretches out on the bed.
Vanity Fair describes the scene captured on hidden cameras, saying of Giuliani, “His hand is in his pants. Watching it, your brain turns into an exclamation point.”
Cohen, as Borat, then reportedly runs into the hotel room sporting a bikini and exclaiming, “She’s 15. She’s too old for you.”
Giuliani did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
He told the New York Post in July that he had agreed to participate in what he believed was an interview about the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response.
“This person comes in yelling and screaming,” Giuliani said of Cohen, “and I thought this must be a scam or a shake-down, so I reported it to the police. He then ran away.”
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