Given US President Donald Trump’s fraught relationship with the media, it was no surprise that he became the first American head of state in decades to skip the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington. It was, of course, no surprise that Trump was a recurring thread through most of the day’s speeches.
But the honours for the evening went to a comedian of Indian origin. Daily Show correspondent Hassan Minhaj performed a blistering act, unsparing in his barbs.
“I would say it’s an honour to be here, but that would be an alternative fact,” he said. “No one wanted to do this, so of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant. No one wanted this gig.”
Minhaj pulled no punches during his 25-minute act: “The leader of our country is not here. That’s because he lives in Moscow, it’s a very long flight. It’d be hard for Vlad to make it. Vlad can’t just make it on a Saturday! As for the other guy, I think he’s in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke.”
He even turned his attention towards Trump’s opponent in the Presidential elections, saying, “Even Hillary Clinton couldn’t be here tonight. I mean, she could have been here, but I think someone told her the event was in Wisconsin and Michigan.”
Some of Minhaj’s harshest comments were also directed towards the media. “Fox News is here,” he began. “I’m amazed you guys even showed up. How are you here in public? It’s hard to trust you guys when you backed a man like Bill O’Reilly for years. But it finally happened. Bill O’Reilly has been fired. But then, you gave him a 25 million dollar severance package. Making it the only package he won’t force a woman to touch.”
Minhaj ended his blistering performance with a reference to the US president’s propensity for tweeting, which he said was protected by the Free Speech amendment in the US constition, even if Trump did not believe in it. “It’s 11 p.m,” Minhaj said. “In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how badly Nikki Minaj did at this dinner. And he’ll be doing it completely sober. And that’s his right. And I’m proud that all of us are here to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”
Also speaking at the event were legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who famously broke the story on Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. The duo traded tricks of the trade (video below) they had learnt over the long careers.
“Almost inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy and usually the giveaway about what the real story might be,” Bernstein said to applause. “[W]hen lying is combined with secrecy, there is usually a pretty good road map in front of us.” He added an addendum to his famous maxim: “Yes, follow the money but also follow the lies.”
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner wasn’t as well-attended as it usually is, with numerous corporate sponsors backing out. This was a protest against Trump’s policies, but also because there was a different event called Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, hosted by comedian Samantha Bee. In one of the segments, comedian and actor Will Ferrel turned up as George Bush, commenting on Trump with one hilarious line: “How do you like me now?”