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At Gridiron Dinner, Trump Trades Jabs With His 'Opposition Party'

The Gridiron dinner, like Fight Club, has rules. Rule No. 1: "Singe, don't burn" with your roast-style jokes. Rule No. 2: No photographs, video or tweeting during the ceremony. There are a few more rules, but really, we're just trying to explain why the photograph above is a shot of Trump from last month.
Olivier Douliery
AFP/Getty Images
The Gridiron dinner, like Fight Club, has rules. Rule No. 1: "Singe, don't burn" with your roast-style jokes. Rule No. 2: No photographs, video or tweeting during the ceremony. There are a few more rules, but really, we're just trying to explain why the photograph above is a shot of Trump from last month.

Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET

President Trump suited up in white tie and tails for an evening of levity and charm Saturday with his cordial hosts, the journalists he has affectionately referred to as "the enemy of the American people" — and had, as recently as a few hours beforehand, described as "being mocked all over the world." The journalists organizing the event, for their part, served up skits for him and a few pointed jabs at his administration.

All in attendance dined on a three-course meal, laid out with "Fake Menus."

Welcome to the Gridiron Club and Foundation's 2018 spring dinner. Here, in the crowded basement ballroom of a swanky D.C. hotel, the mockery is at least kind of the point: For 133 years, journalists have invited a constellation of Washington's bright stars in media and politics to reach across whatever distances divide them for a good verbal kick in the shin — and a hearty laugh about it together.

You can see how this might get weird.

"I know the Gridiron is really an old tradition in Washington — been around a long time, and one that's important to many of you in the media," Trump told the journalists gathered in the room, whom he termed his "opposition party" at one point in his half-hour comedy set. "So I was very excited to receive this invitation to come here and ruin your evening in person."

Trump takes the stage

It was just the latest Gridiron invitation accepted by a U.S. president, all but one of whom have attended the ritzy, closed-door dinner since the elite media organization's founding in 1885. (We're casting a stern eye in your direction, Grover Cleveland.)

But it's fair to say this time felt different: Trump famously turned down Washington's high-profile political media schmoozefests during his first year in office, not only rejecting the Gridiron but the White House Correspondents Dinner last year, as well. In fact, to this point, the only media gala Trump has planned to take part in during his young presidency was one of his own creation, The Highly-Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards, and that turned out to be a Web page.

Still, standing behind the podium and flanked by a minor pantheon of Cabinet members and aides, Trump appeared to relish the opportunity to let loose, training his fire on just about everyone during the roast-style event.

There was his son-in-law seated to his left, Jared Kushner: "You know, we were late tonight because Jared could not get through security."

His treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, sitting to his right: "America has a proud history of treasury secretaries who sponsored the arts. Alexander Hamilton gave us so much. Andrew Mellon famously gave us the National Gallery — a tremendous gift. Steve has given us the blockbuster movie Lego Batman."

There was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a favorite object of Trump's biting comments on Twitter, getting one this time in person: "You know, it's weird, I offered him a ride over — and he recused himself!"

Then he turned to his senior adviser Stephen Miller and wife, Melania.

"I like turnover," he said. "Now the question everybody keeps asking is, who is going to be the next to leave, Steve Miller or Melania?"

"That is terrible, honey — but you love me, right?" he added, turning to his wife as the joke was greeted with gasps from the audience. And after she mouthed something off-mic, he said to the crowd: "I won't tell you what she said."

The governing rule behind the evening's roast-style comedy — as laid out by Gridiron President David Lightman at the start of the night — was to "singe, not burn." It was guidance Trump observed ... for the most part. To muddy a beloved adage: He reserved the brunt of his heat for some of the absent figures who had stayed out of the kitchen — such as his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who Trump called one of CNN's "true stars, the guy who got you the most scoops and inside info."

That included apparently ad libbed broadsides lobbed at former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ("man, she's crazy — but she's a fine woman"), former Vice President Joe Biden ("trust me, I would kick his ass") and Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election: "What is he, on some committee? That's the only thing he doesn't know, is what committee — because he's on the phone so much, he doesn't have any time. Hey!"

And then he turned to Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California.

" 'He must be impeached!' That's all she knows how to say," Trump told the crowd. "And I say — and I get in trouble for this — 'she has to immediately take an IQ test,' and people go crazy."

"There's so much hatred," he added a few seconds later. "We have to stop the hatred."

Building bridges with North Korea?

At one point deep in Trump's set, a moment of genuine policy appeared to glimmer through the cloud of quips and digs — though whether that moment was to be taken seriously or lightly remains unclear.

"I won't rule out direct talks with [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Un — I just won't. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that's his problem, not mine," he said. "He must be a fine man — do you think he's a fine man?"

Late last month the South Korean leadership said North Korea was open to dialogue with the U.S., potentially dialing down the tensions that have simmered between the two countries in recent months. Trump himself has traded barbs with Kim throughout much of his presidency.

"They, by the way, called up a couple of days ago. They said, 'We would like to talk.' And I said, 'So would we, but you have to denuke,' " Trump said, shifting his tone.

"Maybe positive things are happening now," he added. "I hope that's true. I say that in all seriousness: I hope that's true."

Trump seemed happy with his performance at the dinner, tweeting early Sunday afternoon, "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!"

Building walls with the warm-up acts

Trump, of course, was but the closer. The sets and sketches before him teemed with other high-profile figures thrust into unfamiliar roles.

"We practiced very hard for things that don't come naturally to us," said Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, referring to his wife, Anna Peckham. "For me, comedy speech; for Anna, laughing at my jokes."

Cotton represented the GOP side of the aisle with his set, following the Democratic mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. Encouraged by the fact Trump accepted the Gridiron invitation, Landrieu extended one of his own to the president: Come to the Big Easy, which has "everything Donald Trump likes and talks about."

Parades, for instance — and walls.

"You like walls. We've got one of those. It's called the levee," Landrieu said. "Too much public leaking goes on during Mardi Gras all the time. Gold: we've got that too. There are enough gold doubloons in the city of New Orleans you could literally write your name across a building in huge gold letters. Not that anybody would want to do that."

And all the while — before, between and after the two politicians' sets — the journalists of the Gridiron Club carried out another tradition, dressing up and performing musical skits swiping broadly at politicians and themselves. Lifting the tunes to popular standards and swapping in some barbed lyrics of their own, not unlike the Capitol Steps, reporters and anchors traded in their gravitas for some amateur theatrics.

Speaking of weirdness, it's not often the common viewer gets a good look at [name redacted, to protect professional dignity] in a silver sequined tuxedo; [yup, these are redacted too] giving Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance an honest, if imperfect try; and [you'd better believe this one's redacted] dancing in a peacock suit to the belted tones of a Carly Simon satire.

"You're so vain," sang the pantsuited ladies in front of the dancing peacock as one woman, dressed as Hillary Clinton, crooned: "Why can't you let this show be about me? I'm in pain! For 30 years the show's been about me."

In the end, though, this show was about Trump — or "King Chaos," as Landrieu attempted to christen him. "I mean, if it fits."

"I like chaos," Trump said in his own set. "It really is good."

And he closed the night of sparring with one final haymaker.

"I do want to say this is one of the best times I can ever remember having with the media," he said. "This might be the most fun I've had since watching your faces on election night."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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