President Donald Trump swapped one Washington for another Saturday, pointedly opting to connect with American 'deplorables' in a Michigan town rather than exchange barbs at the 'phony' White House correspondents dinner.
The US leader attended a campaign-style rally in Washington Township, north of Detroit, to tout what his team hails as an economic revival on the same evening that the White House press corps hosts its annual confab.
"By the way, is this better than that phony Washington White House correspondents dinner?" an animated Trump asked the cheering crowd.
"I could be up there tonight smiling like I love when they are hitting you shot after shot," he said.
"If you don't smile they will say he was terrible. He couldn't take it. If you do smile, they will say what was he smiling about."
Trump, who has frequently attacked the media and its coverage of him since his days as a presidential candidate, snubbed the press dinner for a second consecutive year since taking office.
"Why would I want to be stuck in a room with a bunch of fake news liberals who hate me?" Trump had said in a fundraising email this week authorized by the Republican National Committee.
During his speech, lasting over an hour, the president roused the crowd on everything from border control and trade to alleged Russian collusion and the Korean peninsula -- a topic that prompted chants of "Nobel! Nobel!"
The rally, held at a sports complex, was Trump's fifth in the Detroit area since he began his improbable presidential run in 2015.
"For too long the loyalty of Michigan workers was repaid with pure and simple betrayal. You were betrayed. For decades you were dealt one devastating blow after another. Disastrous trade deals which I'm straightening out," he said.
"The cars are coming back to Michigan. The plants are coming back. They are being expanded," he added.
Since coming to office, Trump has repeatedly touted day-to-day stock market increases, jobs data and other positive economic indicators as evidence his administration is succeeding.
American reporters are frequent targets of Trump's ire. He routinely tweets about the "fake news" or the "dishonest media," particularly after he sees news reports that he believes are unfavorable to him and his administration.
"Trump's absence is part of a bigger pattern," historian Julian Zelizer wrote on The Atlantic's website about the president's plan to skip the dinner.
"Not only has the president been extremely hostile to the press, questioning their legitimacy and vilifying them as enemies of the state, but he has cut off access to almost everyone outside the Fox News-Breitbart orbit," Zelizer wrote, referring to outlets that cover Trump favorably.
"Most notable of all has been his decision to hold just one solo press conference since taking office."
Trump's weekend rally followed days of political high drama, most notably North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's summit with the South's President Moon Jae-in, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron's three-day state visit to Washington and the US Senate's confirmation of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.
The dinner's entertainment host, comedian Michelle Wolf, will no doubt address the latest political developments, and perhaps the scandals that have touched Trump's environmental chief Scott Pruitt and White House physician Ronny Jackson, who quit as Trump's nominee to be the next veterans affairs secretary.
But Wolf will be roasting an empty chair, as Trump will break presidential tradition by staying away.
Trump has attended the dinner before, but as a guest. The reality TV fixture was in the audience in 2011 when Barack Obama famously mocked him for renewing the "birther" conspiracy about the nation's first black president.
"No one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald," Obama quipped, as Trump scowled in his seat.
"And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing?"
Fifteen presidents have attended the correspondents’ dinner since it began in 1921, which has made the event a hot ticket long before the likes of Bradley Cooper and Scarlett Johansson began showing up. The presidents-in-the-house streak ran to 36 consecutive years until Trump pooped out on the party last year. The last time Trump attended, in 2011, he sat stoically as the evening’s entertainer, Seth Meyers, dropped comic bombs on him. The prospect of it happening again seems to have deterred him from returning.
Trump did make one gesture toward press-administration glasnost, encouraging current and former members of his administration to attend (the White House announced last year that no staff employees would attend in “solidarity” with the president’s snub). And so Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus showed up. Omarosa Manigault-Newman came, too (accompanied by a fellow who tended to the train of her gown). Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders occupied a seat at the head table at the invitation of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
The celebrity cadre was small and not quite A-list: comic and Trump controversialist Kathy Griffin, Comedy Central host Jordan Klepper, Baltimore Orioles legend Brooks Robinson, Stormy Daniels attorney and ubiquitous TV presence Michael Avenatti.
The political contingent was modest as well. Among the pols in attendance were former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D), former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).
Tech luminaries? Titans of business? TV network chiefs? Not so many.
It was possible, one guest quipped, that Trump had done something he doesn’t usually do: He made an event more normal.
The sedate and earnest nature of the event was disrupted by comedian Michelle Wolf, the evening’s entertainer, who predictably went after Trump in a routine that swerved from raunchy to downright nasty. She began by saying, “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, let’s get this over with.”
Wolf vowed to get under Trump’s skin by questioning his wealth, issuing a call and response with the audience (“How broke is he?”). Her punchline included such quips as, “He’s so broke ... he has to fly failed business class” and “he looked for foreign oil in Don Jr.’s hair.”
She was particularly harsh on the women associated with Trump. At one point, she compared Ivanka Trump to a diaper pail, and said Kellyanne Conway has “the perfect last name” because “all she does is lie.” Several cracks about Sarah Huckabee Sanders landed poorly, such as her alleged confusion over how to refer to Sanders’s full name: “Is it Sarah Sanders? Is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders? ... What’s ‘Uncle Tom’ but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know: ‘Aunt Coulter.’”
In place of celebrity glitz, the correspondents’ group has tried to rebrand its party as a celebration of the First Amendment, a fundraiser for journalism scholarships and an awards ceremony. Winners of White House reporting awards this year included: the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, whom Trump disparaged in a tweet last week; a CNN team consisting of Jake Tapper, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto and Carl Bernstein; Washington Post reporter Josh Dawsey, recognized for his work at Politico; and a team from Reuters.