President Trump’s absence for the second year in a row from the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner may end up being the least controversial thing about Saturday night’s gathering of the White House press corps.
Chatter online amongst Washington, D.C., journalists and some in the administration’s orbit after the event was full of criticism for comedian Michelle Wolf, who was the evening’s headliner; criticism and soul-searching about the annual event itself; and an effort by former White House press secretary Sean Spicer to pressure the leadership of the White House Correspondents’ Association into answering for Wolf’s vulgar, personal jabs leveled primarily at the president and his inner circle.
The comedian spoke for roughly 20 minutes to a ballroom full of Washington’s top journalists and political operatives in remarks too lewd in many respects to be repeated here. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote Wolf’s remarks “swerved from raunchy to downright nasty.”
“She was particularly hard on the women associated with Trump,” Farhi also wrote, adding “several cracks about [White House press secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders landed poorly.” (Courtesy of two of Farhi’s colleagues at the Post, here’s a list of Wolf’s “harshest” jokes.) And Politico observed of Wolf’s performance that “it was a risque and uneven routine at first met with laughs but often greeted by awkward silence.”
The comedic routine laced with sexual innuendo and, at times, dominated by outright vulgarities was directed primarily at Republicans and conservatives — a fact not lost on those in the room who expressed their displeasure on Twitter afterward.
“My wife @mercedesschlapp and I walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner. Enough of elites mocking all of us,” Matt Schlapp posted on Twitter just before 11 p.m. Schlapp is the chairman of the American Conservative Union and his wife, Mercedes, is part of the White House’s communications team.
Former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus called the night an “R/X rated spectacle that started poorly and ended up in the bottom of the canyon. Another victory for @realDonaldTrump for not attending and proving his point once again. The room was uncomfortable. Trump lovers and even a large number of Trump haters were pretty miserable.”
Spicer’s critique was more pointed. “Tonight’s #WHCD was a disgrace,” the former Trump spokesman said on Twitter.
The criticism was joined by some well-known political journalists who sounded off both about Wolf’s remarks and the nature of the event more broadly.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was the particular target of harsh treatment by Wolf — as Sanders sat on the dais not far from the lectern where Wolf was speaking. Afterward, some of the journalists from outlets known to spar with the White House or be on the receiving end of pointed attacks directly from the president spoke out on Sanders’ behalf.
“That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive,” tweeted Maggie Haberman of The New York Times. (Haberman said on Twitter that she did not attend the event in person but had watched it on TV.)
“Lots of critics but she has always been decent and professional to me — if not entirely forthcoming,” The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey posted on Twitter about Sanders, attaching Haberman’s tweet about the Trump spokeswoman.
“The spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don’t burn,” said Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News, “Reporters who work with her daily appreciate that @presssec was there.” Like Dawsey, O’Donnell included Haberman’s tweet praising Sanders’ composure under fire.
As Haberman’s tweet had, Baker’s set off a series of responses, subtweets and amens from fellow journalists.
“Couldn’t agree more,” CNN’s Jeff Zeleny posted on Twitter, “So much important and amazing journalism this year — that should be the focus, when truth matters and is needed more than ever. It was an embarrassment in the room and surely to the audience at home.”
“He’s talking about the White House Correspondents Assn dinner,” tweeted Fox News political analyst Brit Hume. “He’s right,” Hume said, attaching Baker’s tweet.
“The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a deeply flawed event that doesn’t do what it aspires to do and is serious need of retooling,” wrote Robert Yoon, a political research expert and former longtime employee of CNN’s political unit in D.C., wrote online, also referencing Baker’s tweet.
Other journalists saw broader political implications stemming from the controversial remarks.
“Michelle Wolf — and the WHCD — really played into Trump’s hand tonight. Trump is vulgar and mean-spirited, but that doesn’t mean that Wolf needed to be the same,” tweeted D.C. fixture and longtime political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
John Ward of Yahoo News called the comedy routine “a political gift to the Trump admin[istration].”
Echoing Ward, Rothenberg and Baker, Meg Kinnard of The Associated Press saw very specific implications for journalists, especially those working and reporting in predominantly Republican states. Saturday night’s event “made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us, even wider,” Kinnard tweeted. “And those of us based in the red states who work hard every day to prove our objectivity will have to deal with it.”
In a trio of tweets early Sunday morning Spicer sought to elicit a response from the White House Correspondents’ Association to the criticism Wolf had received.
Comedian Kathy Griffin, who has herself been embroiled in controversy over her past comments about the president, took up Wolf’s defense and responded to Baker and Zeleny.
“Then don’t have a comic do a roast,” Griffin told the two longtime White House reporters on Twitter, “If you want to focus on the journalism do a boring awards show. Journalism is all about the 1st amendment..If you don’t see the import of what @michelleisawolf did tonight then you don’t get it.”
For her part, Wolf responded to Spicer calling the event a “disgrace” with a simple “Thank you!” on Twitter. And the comedian also challenged Haberman’s critique, suggesting The New York Times White House reporter was harboring unspoken concerns about Sanders’ appearance.
The controversy over Wolf seemed to steal headlines which the president had seemingly tried to steal for himself by absenting himself from the dinner for a second consecutive year and going to Michigan for a campaign rally instead.
In his remarks there earlier Saturday evening, Trump had called the press “very dishonest people” and “fake news.” He called the dinner in D.C. “phony” and said he had much preferred to be in Washington Township, Mich., rather than back in the nation’s capital in a ballroom full of the journalists who cover him and his administration.
He told the enthusiastic crowd of supporters that had he been at the dinner in the other Washington, he would’ve been forced to smile through attacks on him or face negative stories afterward about not being a good sport while being roasted by Wolf.
“You know, there’s no winning,” he said over cheers.
Back in D.C., Matt and Mercedes Schlapp articulated Trump’s concerns more philosophically — concerns widely shared by conservatives across the country who see themselves as losing out in a broader culture war despite their electoral victories in the Trump era.
“America was watching and it’s why they hate the swamp,” Matt Schlapp said in a tweet addressed to Sanders.
“It’s why America hates the out of touch leftist media elite,” Mercedes Schlapp tweeted, referencing her husband’s tweet about “the swamp.”
Keir Starmer elected as UK opposition Labour leader
The UK’s main opposition Labour Party has elected Keir Starmer as its new leader, the party announced Saturday.
The change in leadership comes as the country battles its own coronavirus crisis and amid calls to improve public services, such as the National Health Service currently under strain.
Starmer is a former crown prosecutor who has promised to pursue policies aimed at improving social equality, including an increase to the top tax rate and a boost to social services, as well as take stronger action on climate change.
In a video posted to his Twitter account, Starmer said he would work with the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to tackle the coronavirus crisis, while also pointing out “mistakes or faltering government.”
“In times like this, we need good government. A government that saves lives and protects our country,” he said.
“It’s a huge responsibility. And whether we voted for this government or not, we all rely on it to get this right,” he said.
Starmer rose to prominence as a young activist lawyer before his career in politics. He more recently raised his public profile as Labour’s shadow Brexit spokesperson. In the UK, the main opposition party has “shadow” ministers who hold political portfolios.
Starmer won more than 56% of the party vote, beating fellow MPs Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey in one round.
The new leader has pitched himself as a unity candidate amid continued divisions in the Labour Party.
The Labour Party has been mired in criticism over anti-Semtic remarks by several MPs in the past. Corbyn was widely criticized for his lax response to the problem within the party.
Starmer said in his video that the party needs to face up to the issue with honesty and apologized to Jewish communities.
“On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry.
“And I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
GOP Candidate in Disputed U.S. House Race Not Running Again
Raleigh, N.C. (AP) — The Republican candidate whose narrow lead in a North Carolina congressional race was thrown out because of suspicions of ballot fraud announced Tuesday he will not run in the newly ordered do-over election, saying he needs surgery late next month.
The withdrawal of Mark Harris, a candidate hobbled by links to alleged ballot fraud, could help Republicans in their effort to keep the competitive seat in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.
Harris announced his decision in a statement that focused on his health problems. He did not mention the alleged ballot fraud scandal.
Harris had led Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes after November’s election, but the outcome was never certified. State election officials grew concerned about reports that an operative working for Harris was illegally tampering with absentee ballots.
Harris last week stopped a special state elections board hearing by declaring he couldn’t continue to testify. He cited health problems caused by a blood infection that required hospitalization and led to two strokes. He also said he agreed that a new election should be called, despite his previous calls to be declared the winner.
Shortly after Harris spoke last week, the elections board ordered a new contest . A date for the new election has not been announced.
On Tuesday, Harris encouraged his supporters to rally around Stony Rushing, a commissioner in Union County. The local official from the Charlotte suburbs would “stand firm on so many of the issues that concern us, including the issue of life, our national security, and religious freedom,” Harris said.
Rushing, a firing range owner and licensed gun seller, has been a county commissioner off and on for more than eight years, first taking office in 2002. He didn’t return a phone call to his shooting range seeking comment on Tuesday.
Only one other GOP candidate — former state Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County — has publicly expressed interest in running for the seat. In a phone interview, Tucker said he’s “95 percent sure” that he plans to run for the seat. He said he had no idea how Harris’ near-endorsement of Rushing would affect the campaign.
Former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated in last May’s primary, told The Associated Press in an interview that it was “good for the country and the party” that Harris wasn’t running. When asked why, he said simply: “I think it’s just obvious.”
Pittenger again closed the door on seeking his old job, saying he’s involved in a series of conferences on counter-terrorism and security issues.
Former Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday he wouldn’t seek the seat. He was previously mayor of Charlotte, a part of which is in the congressional district.
McCready has been assembling a new campaign staff and raising money to run again in the district that stretches from Charlotte through several counties to the east along the South Carolina border. His campaign finance report showed McCready raised $487,000 during the final five weeks of 2018. His campaign sent out a campaign fundraising plea late Thursday, citing the state elections board’s decision.
McCready formally announced his intention to run Friday before several dozen supporters at a brewery in Waxhaw, near Charlotte.
“Folks, there’s a lot of people that have had their confidence shaken in recent weeks because of the fraud conducted by Mark Harris’s campaign,” McCready said. “There’s a lot of people right now in North Carolina that are disillusioned in our electoral process.”
He told the crowd that he and his team were going to “knock on every door” in the district to earn votes and to reassure constituents that he’s the type of politician who will do the right thing.
“We’re going to talk to people about doing what’s right instead of what’s wrong,” he said.
Harris struggled during testimony last week over why he prepared for his primary election last year by seeking out and signing up Bladen County political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, a convicted felon who had been accused of ballot fraud in the 2016 elections. The state elections board turned over evidence of his actions in 2017 to federal prosecutors, who took no action.
According to testimony and other findings detailed at the hearing, Dowless conducted an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation: He and his assistants gathered up absentee ballots from voters by offering to put them in the mail.
Dowless’ workers in rural Bladen County testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.
It is generally against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than the voter or a family member to handle someone’s completed ballot.
No criminal charges have been filed in the case . Dowless declined to testify last week after the elections board refused to grant him immunity from prosecution based on what he might say.
North Carolina Election Board Unanimously Agrees To New House Election
Feb 21 (Reuters) – North Carolina’s elections board on Thursday unanimously ordered a new election for a U.S. House seat after officials said corruption surrounding absentee ballots tainted the results of last November’s vote.
The bipartisan board’s 5-0 decision came after Republican candidate Mark Harris requested a new vote, telling the panel that evidence of possible ballot fraud had undermined confidence in the election.
In the televised hearing, board members said “corruption” and the “absolute mess with the absentee ballots” had cast doubt on the fairness of the contest and voters deserved a fresh election.
Harris’ request for a new vote came as a surprise. For months, he had said he should be declared the victor in the 9th Congressional District after he led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 ballots cast on Nov. 6. Elections officials, however, had refused to certify him as the winner due to allegations of irregularities in the vote.
“Through the testimony I’ve listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said at a hearing in Raleigh. “It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th district seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”
Harris’ statement came on the fourth day of a hearing on whether his campaign benefited from what state investigators called illegal election manipulation by political consultant Leslie McCrae Dowless.
Earlier on Thursday, Harris said he had known Dowless was going door to door on the candidate’s behalf to help voters obtain absentee ballots, a process that is legal. Harris said Dowless assured him he would not collect the ballots from the voters, which would violate state law.
But residents of at least two counties in the district said Dowless and his paid workers collected incomplete absentee ballots and, in some instances, falsely signed as witnesses and filled in votes for contests left blank, according to testimony at the hearing.
Kim Strach, executive director of the state’s election board, earlier this week called the operation a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme.”
According to text messages Harris’ attorneys turned over to the board on Thursday, Harris sought a meeting with Dowless when he learned that Dowless had led a successful absentee ballot program for Republican candidate Todd Johnson during a 2016 congressional primary election.
In those messages to a Bladen County judge, Harris asked about “the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us.”
Harris campaign officials have said they did not pay Dowless to do anything illegal, and Dowless has maintained his innocence. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Dan Grebler and James Dalgleish)