President Trump is preparing to face his chief tormentors, and the likelihood is he will emerge bored rather than bruised.
For the world at large and even some members of Washington’s Gridiron Club—the 133-year-old private society that functions as the journalistic equivalent of Skull & Bones—it came as a surprise this week when the White House announced that Trump has accepted an invitation to attend and speak at the club’s annual white-tie-and-tails, ball-gown conclave of media elites, politicians, lobbyists, deep-state denizens and other creatures of The Swamp.
After premising much of his presidency for the past 13 months on demonizing the press as the “enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news,” Donald Trump is finally taking a tentative step toward normalizing relations—while agreeing to participate in the sort of elite Washington ritual that his populist base would doubtless denounce.
The 45th president has even resigned himself, in principle anyway, to honoring a longstanding custom of any healthy democracy—that is, voluntarily subjecting himself to a degree of media mockery, although how much he’ll be required to tolerate remains an open question.
The presence of the notoriously thin-skinned Trump at the March 3rd banquet/satirical revue at the Renaissance Washington Hotel—after he pointedly snubbed every single one of last year’s Beltway celebrations of the vaunted institutional respect between reporters and the government officials they’re supposed to hold accountable—will pose a thorny challenge for the Gridiron, which must navigate a fine line between ridicule and flattery.
It will also test the mettle of a 71-year-old man who is not known for his gifts of self-deprecation (as essential an element in a presidential dinner speech as the triple lutz is in an Olympic figure skating performance) or his willingness to countenance criticism, especially if cloaked in humor.
“I think it’s exciting if he wants to take the road less traveled and venture into unfamiliar or even unfriendly territory,” said former Trump campaign operative (and almost-White House communications director) Jason Miller, these days one of the president’s defenders on CNN.
“My concern would be that the members of the media elite would be unable to contain themselves and act as the party of opposition, and rather than being a lighthearted roasting, it will become overly personal and very negative. I want to wish for the best here, but I don’t know if members of the media will be able to control themselves.”
The probability, however, is that they will. It’s unclear what current Gridiron Club president David Lightman, national correspondent in the McClatchy newspaper chain’s Washington bureau, told White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Communications Director Hope Hicks during a meeting in December, but he obviously sold them on the idea that their boss stands to benefit from showing up.
“They were cordial, we talked, and they accepted,” Lightman tersely told The Daily Beast.
Unlike the White House Correspondents Association Dinner—where in May 2011, then-Apprentice-star and rabid birther Trump sat red-faced in an audience of 3,000 who roared with laughter as President Obama and Seth Meyers pitilessly lampooned him—the Gridiron is a relatively civilized affair.
It is, for starters, around one-fifth the size of the correspondents dinner. And while the speeches in recent years have been on the record and open to coverage by the White House pool, with transcripts of the president’s remarks routinely released—after more than a century of banning working reporters from the event—television cameras are not permitted.
“I would love for us to be there, but it has been closed,” lamented Steve Scully, longtime political editor and host for C-SPAN, which annually produces a live broadcast of the correspondents dinner, replete with chagrined reaction shots of the punch lines’ targets in the crowd.
“I always figured that the Gridiron always had the best shot of getting President Trump to come, because there are no cameras,” said one member of the club. “He doesn’t want to be publicly humiliated or be seen as being the butt of a joke. He doesn’t like being a meme.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s core supporters will likely excuse him for spending a few hours consorting with swamp creatures.
“It’s a win-win for him,” said one of the club’s 65 so-called active members—that is, working journalists who traditionally don’t petition to join but must be invited if deemed sufficiently important and companionable by the membership committee after they’ve paid their dues covering the political and policy intrigues of Washington for a decade or more. (As with a seat on the Supreme Court, membership in the Gridiron Club is a lifetime affair, and the majority of members, so-called associates, are pensioners who’ve retired from the daily grind.)
“If there’s discomfort for his base, that’s great, so what, because it totally fits the president’s message,” the club member continued. “He can mock the room full of elite media, and if they’re making fun of him, he can say they don’ t have anything better to do. It’s pretty good for his populist, anti-Washington credentials.”
The club member added: “Look, the motto of the Gridiron is ‘to singe, not burn,’ but one person’s definition of ‘singe’ is another person’s definition of ‘burn.’… We all know that the funniest stuff would be the most biting, and the press doesn’t want to look like they’re pulling back.”
Trump is unlikely to enjoy jokes that—if unrestrained by the sort of politesse that the president never displays—could very well venture into the comedic no-man’s-land of porn stars, Playboy models, criminal investigations, manic tweeting, narcissism, the Emoluments Clause, his Fox News addiction, presidential prevarication, Russia-Russia-Russia, and other strange marvels of the current administration.
The Gridiron member—like a few others who spoke to The Daily Beast—asked not to be identified.
Indeed, the Gridiron doesn’t even publish a list of members, although it’s no secret who many of them are—folks like the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page and the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet (who was club president in 2017), USA Today’s Susan Page and her husband, former Dallas Morning News bureau chief Carl Leubsdorf (both past Gridiron presidents), The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, CNN’s Jake Tapper, Fox News’ Bret Baier, Mother Jones magazine’s David Corn, and NBC Meet the Press Moderator Chuck Todd, among other Beltway regulars.
It’s largely an aging group that comprises some of the most wizened representatives of the capital press establishment—bureau chiefs of regional newspapers, wire service and magazine editors, network and cable television figures, and esteemed columnists—who enjoy hamming it up onstage by donning silly costumes while belting out political parodies of Broadway, opera, and pop tunes.
“The challenge is going to be performing their sharpest parodies without coming across as mean-spirited,” the Gridiron member said, “especially with a subject [i.e., Trump] who is going to feel aggrieved.”
The program—which tends to run late into the night—is usually lengthy enough to try the patience of even the most-lubricated attendee, let alone a teetotaler imprisoned on a dais and possessed of a famously limited attention span.
“These skits can go on forever, and this guy is not going to enjoy sitting on a dais,” the Gridiron member said. “He’d rather work the room. That’s what he does at Mar-a-Lago. That’s what he enjoys doing and he can’t do that at any of these Washington dinners.”
The March 3 festivities will also feature humorous remarks by a designated Republican and Democrat (this year it’s Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, respectively), as well as the customary “speech in the dark” by Gridiron’s president, who is chosen each year purely on the basis of seniority, and will be delivered by Lightman—and, of course, the response from Trump.
Although he starred in a network television show for 14 seasons—and was even the subject of a Friar’s Club roast in 2004—Trump’s record as a dinner speaker is spotty at best. His bludgeoning wit during the October 2016 Al Smith Dinner, as campaign opponent Hillary Clinton sat a few feet away, near Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York Archdiocese, was greeted with frequent boos from the black-tie audience. At one point Trump claimed that Clinton hates Roman Catholics.
“If Trump is half as effective at bombing ISIS as he is at bombing stand-up routines, he’s ready to be commander in chief,” wrote Daily Beast columnist Erin Gloria Ryan.