David Litt is a former White House speechwriter and the author of “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years.”
He was booed at the Al Smith dinner. He skipped the White House correspondents’ dinner. But President Trump isn’t giving up on comedy. On Saturday he’ll be the guest of honor at the Gridiron Club, the venerable association of D.C. journalists that holds twice-annual variety shows in the basement of a Washington hotel.
I worked on a few of President Barack Obama’s Gridiron monologues, and of all of the D.C. rituals I’ve witnessed, the Gridiron is surely the weirdest. Where else can you find renowned reporters decked out in wigs and costumes, singing parodies about politicians they cover? (In 2013, festivities included an NRA-themed “My Gun” to the tune of “My Girl,” and verses about Hillary Clinton’s age set to “When I’m 64.”)
To cap the night, the commander in chief traditionally delivers a tame but chuckle-worthy run of jokes and says something nice about reporters. Then everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s odd, and also strangely for a media dinner, not fully open to press coverage. While a few summaries and top-five-jokes lists appear after each dinner, video of the event is not made available to the public. The press pool is allowed in to cover the president’s remarks, but not with cameras.
Usually, this lack of transparency isn’t a problem — no one outside the Washington press corps cares about the Gridiron, and, frankly, ordinarily no one needs to. But this year is different. If this weekend’s dinner is business as usual, Trump’s appearance will deal yet another blow to an already beleaguered free press.
The Gridiron’s all-in-good-fun motto — “Singe, but never burn” — masks its symbolic importance. For both the media and the president, the evening is a detente. Reporters inevitably view the White House as evasive and secretive. The White House inevitably views reporters as irritating and unfair. But along with the corny songs and cheesy jokes comes a chance for each side to admit that the other serves a purpose. The United States can’t choose between decisive politicians and skeptical reporters; a functioning democracy requires both. Presidents of both parties have understood this.
But it appears this president doesn’t. From the beginning of his campaign, Trump has sought to reshape the relationship between the White House and the media. His first year in office was littered with broken norms: only one news conference; only a handful of interviews outside Fox News; lies of shocking frequency and scope; public fantasizing about rewriting libel laws and stripping broadcast licenses.
And these pale in comparison with the full-scale rhetorical assault Trump has waged against the press. As a candidate, he regularly heckled journalists by name and encouraged crowds to join in. As president, he declared the press “the enemy of the people.” T-shirts bearing the message “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required” became so popular among Trump supporters that Walmart carried them for months after the election.
These words have consequences. Trump’s catch-all charge of “fake news” has been adopted by human rights abusers who persecute journalists around the world. The phrase was also used by the Michigan man recently arrested for threatening to shoot up CNN’s headquarters. How long until someone else takes the president’s rhetoric both seriously and literally?
With the free press threatened as never before, a Gridiron that proceeds as if everything’s normal will only make the situation worse. If Trump doubles down on his attacks, journalists who toast him will be ratifying this new arrangement. If his jokes are self-deprecating and his concluding paragraphs full of praise, it will be another sign that this administration can undermine our institutions so long as it pays them lip service.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way for reporters to defend a pillar of democracy while still honoring their invitation: Make this year’s Gridiron monologues completely transparent. Livestream the president’s remarks. (In the interest of fairness, the club could also make the remarks of its president, and any other invited guests, viewable to the public as well.) If Trump’s well-worn attacks on journalists are met with awkward silence, it would be a public humiliation for our status-obsessed commander in chief. If the president chooses to flatter reporters instead, they’ll be armed with a valuable counter-argument the next time he calls them fake news.