President Donald Trump’s decision to attend this year’s Gridiron Club dinner, his first presidential appearance at a major Washington press event, spurred endless advance speculation among members of the city’s oldest organization of journalists.
Many of us thought it possible, even probable, the notoriously thin-skinned president would react poorly to the three-and-a-half hour evening featuring journalists performing skits that skewer the politicians and the press, and some wondered if a particularly pointed number might prompt him to walk out.
It turned out Saturday night such fears were overblown. Trump came, appeared at times to enjoy himself (especially when the target was Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden) and stayed to give his unique version of the traditional closing speech. He had some good one-liners and said at one point, “This was the most fun I’ve had since watching your faces on Election Night.”
That said, much of the president’s rambling, 34-minute dissertation — less self-deprecating than self-aggrandizing and the longest in modern times — struck a few listeners as offensive. A larger number of people in the audience thought it inappropriate, and most people heard another bizarre reminder that the nation’s fate these days lies in uncertain, potentially unstable hands.
Trump began well with prepared material that drew substantial laughter, noting “we were late tonight because (son-in-law) Jared (Kushner) could not get through security.” He said that, when he offered Attorney General Jeff Sessions a ride, “he recused himself,” and he denigrated Vice President Mike Pence as his “Apprentice.”
A sign of trouble came when, after commending the persistent White House staff chaos as “really exciting and invigorating,” he said “the question everyone keeps asking is, ‘Who’s going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?’”
“That’s terrible honey, but you love me, right?” he asked, looking at his wife, who, after whispering a barely audible “behave,” gave a brief affirmative nod.
The president then veered into a series of political rejoinders far more appropriate for one of his rallies of true believers than the white-tie audience of 653 journalists, media executives and government officials. (The audience tied for second-largest in Gridiron history.)
He unloaded on familiar targets: the outgoing publisher of the “failing New York Times,” CNN, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Oprah Winfrey (whose potential presidential run appears to have unsettled him), Reps. Adam Schiff and Maxine Waters of California and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whom he once more chided as Pocahontas for claiming a small portion of Native American ancestry.
His performance was hardly reassuring, after a week in which he took conflicting gun control positions and threatened new tariffs against foreign steel and aluminum without the usual staff work and other preparations because, according to NBC News, he became “unglued” after the resignation of close confidant Hope Hicks.
That threat, which could affect U.S. allies like Canada more than U.S. foes like China, has prompted columns and editorials expressing concern over how Trump would react to a real emergency, given his overreaction to lesser matters.
He also reiterated the myth that Democrats were responsible for the congressional failure to protect the “Dreamers” when it’s widely known the White House sabotaged a bipartisan compromise immigration plan.
It was a measure of the uncertainty he creates that, when the president said he “won’t rule out direct talks” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, no one was really sure if he was serious. Trump quickly qualified it by reiterating North Korean denuclearization had to come first.
Trump even reprised his presidential election success, something audiences seem destined to hear for the 34 months until voters get an opportunity to change their 2016 mistake. And the president who regularly accuses mainstream journalists of “fake news” concluded by very briefly thanking “the press for all you do to support and sustain our democracy,” adding twice for emphasis: “I mean that.” Maybe.
In the end, nothing really changed from an evening with a central purpose, Music Chairman John Mulligan said, “to promote good fellowship” in the capital.
Trump seemed pleased afterwards. “The Gridiron Dinner last night was great fun. I am accomplishing a lot in Washington and have never had a better time doing something, and especially since this is for the American People!” he tweeted Sunday.
Club members were, for the most part, happy that Trump extended the Gridiron’s record of hosting every president since Benjamin Harrison in 1891, six years after the club was founded. But nobody who heard Trump’s speech could feel very comfortable with the fact that, at a time when lurking dangers require thoughtful, measured responses, his uncertain hands are at the country’s helm.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.