It is an American press tradition that goes back decades: the US president endures a friendly ribbing in front of an audience of journalists, all in the name of charity.
But with Donald Trump skipping the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for the second year running, the honour of attending this year went to his press secretary, Sarah Sanders.
Sanders said the president had encouraged his staff to attend, and that she thought it was “important for us to be here”.
After enduring biting mockery from comedian Michelle Wolf, she looked as though she might be regretting the choice.
Many administration officials, including the president himself, became the butt of the joke. (Trump tweeted the following morning that he thought the event was “boring” and that Wolf “bombed”.)
But the onslaught against Sanders, sitting on the head table, left onlookers arguing about whether Wolf had gone too far, or whether her comments were justified.
In a ‘roast’ that drew both laughs and gasps, Wolf started by saying: “We are graced with Sarah’s presence tonight. I have to say I’m a little star struck.”
The former Daily Show contributor then compared the press secretary to the matronly but terrifying disciplinarian in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s most famous dystopian novel.
“I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’,” Wolf told Sanders.
— Mayday Mindy 🌊 (@maydaymindy9) April 29, 2018
End of Twitter post by @maydaymindy9
The comedian caused more controversy with a quip referring to her make-up: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. But she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye.
“Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
Read our coverage of previous dinners
- Trump attacks media after snubbing dinner
- US comedian Hasan Minhaj targets Trump at 2017 dinner
- President Obama pokes fun at himself
Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for the New York Times (which stopped attending the event in 2008), questioned Wolf’s attack on the press secretary’s appearance.
Another Twitter user wrote: “Shame on her! How dare she go after her looks and character. What happened to women power and women stick together?
“I guess that only happens when you are on the same side of the isle. I hope she never works again!”
‘Solid, cutting jokes’
After her routine, Wolf said she was commenting on Sanders’ “despicable behaviour” rather than her looks.
But others watching said it showed Mr Trump, who has called the media “the enemy of the American people”, was right not to attend the event.
“This is disgusting, unfunny, and exactly why most of America dislikes the media,” wrote one critic on social media.
Comedian Tim Young suggested media mockery of Mr Trump was fuelling support for him.
But other correspondents and comedians watching, such as New York Times commentator Wajahat Ali, said the press secretary was fair game.
I sae all the jokes Michelle Wolf made about Sarah Huckabee Sanders. You guys…really? You’re offended for Sarah? Are you kidding me? It was 90 seconds. And Wolff held back. They were solid, cutting jokes. Sarah can dish it, so she should be able to take it. For 90 seconds.
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) April 29, 2018
End of Twitter post by @WajahatAli
Kumail Nanjani, actor and co-writer of the film The Big Sick, said Sanders did not deserve any pity.
The White House has caused controversy with attacks on immigrants and been accused of fuelling racism.
Sanders has been accused of dodging questions and even lying for the president in connection with the investigation into alleged Russian interference in his 2016 campaign.
They call you liars. They call Mexicans rapists. They call Muslims murderers. They support white supremacists. But someone calls them out on what they do, & suddenly they’re heroes for not walking out. https://t.co/B9aT7moy2C
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) April 29, 2018
End of Twitter post by @kumailn
Columnist Mehdi Hasan also pointed to allegations against the president – including multiple claims of sexual harassment, which he denies.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders works for, lies for, a guy accused of sexually assaulting more than a dozen women, one of whom he suggested he couldn’t have assaulted because she wasn’t good looking enough. Yet we’re supposed to have a pity party for SHS because of a #WHCD roast? Really?
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) April 29, 2018
End of Twitter post by @mehdirhasan
The row also ignited a debate about freedom of speech.
New York Times correspondent Peter Baker suggested comedy was not suitable for a journalism event. But comedian Kathy Griffin said journalism was “all about the 1st amendment” and that Wolf’s commentary was vital.
Sanders is certainly not the first Trump press secretary to be mocked in front of the world’s media.
Her beleaguered predecessor Sean Spicer was roundly ridiculed on many occasions, including on the comedy show Saturday Night Live.
“The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” Spicer said.
But he said the jokes at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner went too far – not that Wolf was apologising.