President Donald Trump cannot seem to go more than two days without causing a new storm of controversy. The latest firestorm, unsurprisingly, arose from a Tweet.
“I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year,” Trump wrote on Saturday, Feb. 25. “Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!”
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) is a black-tie event attended by the president, journalists and other celebrities. The event honors political journalism, though headlines covering the WHCD tend to focus on jokes told by the president and a headlining comedian. Trump’s decision not to attend is very rare; the last president to skip was Ronald Reagan in 1981, as he was recovering from an assassination attempt. While this is obviously an unusual incident, some may wonder why Trump’s absence is such a big deal. Everyone, regardless of party affiliation, can probably agree that one man’s absence at a black-tie dinner party pales in comparison to the other issues this country currently faces. But this event should not be ignored, even if there are other, seemingly more pressing problems within the Trump administration.
His absence has two possible motives. This is either symbolic of Trump’s deteriorating relationship with the media, or of his thin skin and resistance to critique. Neither reason should inspire confidence. Regardless of his reasons for skipping the WHCD, this decision will backfire on him and his presidency.
Let’s first look at the issue of Trump trying to save his pride. We know that humor at Trump’s expense bothers him. For proof, look no further than his constant rants against everything from his portrayal on “Saturday Night Live” to comments made by celebrities such as Meryl Streep or the cast of “Hamilton.” We also know that skewering the president with pointed humor is a tradition at the WHCD, and Trump can expect some jokes at his expense. It seems more than plausible that his absence is an attempt to save his pride and ensure that he doesn’t have to be there to be roasted, or to somehow prove that he is “above” the jokes that will come. However, if this were the goal then it has already begun to backfire. Not facing his critics at the dinner presents an image problem for someone as image-obsessed as Trump. We are left to wonder if he’s skipping because he’s afraid of what will be said that night. In addition, Alec Baldwin – who has played Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live” since October – is hinting that he will appear in character if Trump doesn’t show up at the dinner. This will almost certainly create a bigger problem for Trump’s image than showing up would.
To be fair, this decision is not exactly surprising considering Trump’s steadily worsening relationship with the media and the White House Correspondents’ Association. From day one, Trump’s administration has attacked the press, from the much-lampooned press conference where Sean Spicer attacked news coverage of Trump’s inauguration, to banning certain media outlets from attending press briefings, to calling the media the “enemy of the people.” This behavior was already highly irregular, and not attending the dinner is just another sign of the poor relationship between Trump and the press. It may be intended as a power play to show that Trump isn’t willing to cooperate with the media’s expectations of him, but instead continues to stoke fears about freedom of the press. After all, if he can’t even attend a dinner with journalists, who is to say he will cooperate with them and let them do their jobs?
Those who are against the WHCD consider it merely an irrelevant “celebrity lovefest,” in the words of Doree Lewak of the New York Post. It is true that the event has become more focused on fashion and humor, and less so on good journalism. It is also true that journalists and politicians should be careful about becoming too close in order to ensure objective political coverage. However, it is still important that Trump is not attending this year’s dinner. No matter the reason for skipping, his absence speaks volumes and reflects much about his character and relationship to the United States media and, potentially, the legacy of the freedom of the press under his presidency.
Dylan Walker ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Mountain Grove, Mo. They major in classics with concentrations in film studies and women’s and gender studies.