Every president since 1981 has attended the annual White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner.
That year, President Reagan missed out. The reason? He needed to recover after a would-be assassin fired a bullet into his chest a few weeks earlier.
On Saturday, President Trump announced he will not be attending the annual dinner in April, long considered the premier social event of the Washington press corps and typically an evening of good-natured bantering between presidents and the Fourth Estate.
Trump’s announcement added to the ratcheting tensions between his administration and the media. Almost daily, in speeches or on Twitter, he calls particular news outlets fake, disgusting or dishonest — and news organizations have responded by digging in, standing united and devoting more resources to covering a president who has branded the press the enemy.
I will not be attending the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2017
On Friday, the White House barred reporters from several major news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, CNN and Politico, from attending an off-camera press briefing.
The banned reporters stayed behind in the White House press room and the image was striking — a few huddled reporters, staring at smart phones, in a mostly empty room.
“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, said in a statement.
Davan Maharaj, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, said, “The public has a right to know, and that means being informed by a variety of news sources, not just those filtered by the White House press office in hopes of getting friendly coverage.”
“Regardless of access, The Times will continue to report on the Trump administration without fear or favor,” Maharaj added.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who held the off-camera briefing, has said he wants to be transparent and have a good relationship with the press. In December, while speaking on a panel in Washington, Spicer said open access for the media is “what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”
The action from the White House on Friday came hours after Trump once again castigated the media as the “enemy of the people,” this time while speaking before supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.
Trump’s public complaints about the media have been bolstered by his aides.
At CPAC, Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s senior aide, who once oversaw the conservative-leaning Breitbart News — which was invited to Friday’s briefing — framed the administration’s battle with the press as an ideological war. He consistently called the media the “opposition party” throughout a panel discussion at the conference.
“They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has,” he said. “Every day it is going to be a fight.”
Is Trump’s message getting through? In some ways, yes.
An Emerson College poll released this month found 49% of voters believe the Trump administration is truthful, compared to 48% who do not. By contrast, 53% of voters find the news media untruthful, compared with 39% who find the media truthful.
The poll was split along party lines — especially when looking at the media. Ninety-one percent of Republicans believe the news media is untruthful, and 69% of Democrats believe the press is honest.
As the president faces, among other things, questions about his aides and associates making repeated contact with senior Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, the hashtag #NotTheEnemy has gone viral on Twitter. It’s regularly used to highlight journalists who have lost their lives while reporting and to remind the administration that the press should not be viewed as an adversary.
For Trump, barring news organizations that he perceives as unfair is nothing new. Last year, his campaign refused to issue press credentials to some media outlets for his events.
Watching the back-and-forth between Trump and the press are the American people.
In recent weeks, “Saturday Night Live” has poked fun at Spicer, with Melissa McCarthy playing him in spoofs of press briefings.
A Gallup poll released this month showed 36% of Americans think the media have been too tough on Trump, while 31% think the treatment has been about right and 28% say the press has not been tough enough.
Within the poll the partisan divide is stark. Seventy-four percent of Republicans believe the media have been too tough on Trump, compared to 49% of Democrats who believe the press needs to be tougher.
On Saturday, Trump also used Twitter to blast the news media again, complaining it failed to highlight a dip in the national debt.
“The media has not reported that the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo.,” he wrote. (Although the numbers are accurate, Trump’s tweet suggested he deserves credit for something that is largely beyond his control, especially since he hasn’t yet given Congress any proposals to change tax laws or the financial industry.)
Even as Trump, who has been a frequent guest at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in the past, says he will not attend, the association is forging ahead.
At the annual dinner, the president usually delivers self-deprecating jokes and often is roasted by a high-profile comedian. The president also greets students who win journalism scholarships and awards, a major part of the evening.
Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Assn., said the dinner “has been and will continue to be a celebration of the 1st Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic.”
As for Reagan back in 1981, though he missed the dinner, he still called in to offer a few remarks by phone. And in keeping with the evening’s tradition, he still got a laugh as he recalled the day he got shot.
“If I could give you just one little bit of advice,” Reagan quipped, “when somebody tells you to get in a car quick, do it.”