WASHINGTON— Hope Hicks walked into the Oval Office last month with a message for the president. Some staff members wanted to go to the White House Correspondent's Dinner, she said, according to a person present.
Trump mulled it over, and polled the room. The advice he received: It was probably a bad idea. Attendance might suggest a disunited front from the administration — plus, the comedian was going to be rude to him, anyway.
"I agree," Trump said. "Let's not have anybody go."
A month later a plan has come into focus: While reporters who cover the administration dole out scholarships to students and celebrate the media and free speech at a black tie dinner, Trump will be 116 miles away at an arena, railing against the dishonest, "fake news" media at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center.
Trump will skip the dinner "because the White House correspondents' bash has become more of an elitist party to trash Republican presidents," said longtime confidant Roger Stone. "Believe me there will be nobody wearing a tuxedo or black tie at the Trump event."
Publicly, the administration says the rally falls on the 100th day of his presidency, "so I respectfully suggest that it’s not just about the correspondents’ dinner, it’s rather an opportunity for him to talk to voters that elected him and what he’s been able to accomplish in the first 100 days," press secretary Sean Spicer said Friday aboard Air Force One.
But a White House official noted the optics and said the American people prefer to see Trump out on the road in their cities. "They didn't vote for the president to go sit at a dinner in a tux," the official said. "They voted for someone to go work on their behalf and that's what President Trump is doing."
The counterprogramming rally also represents a president itching to get back out on the campaign trail to talk to his supporters. "He has been jonesing to go out and do rallies again but some around him have attempted to restrain him," a source said. "Some on the White House staff argue it looks more like campaigning."
Trump's decision to skip the dinner and hold a rally poses a tricky situation for TV networks, which have taken to covering portions of the fete in recent years, typically the remarks from the president and the headlining comedian. Network executives are aware of what could happen: the president appearing as a man of the people, while journalists and celebrities in tuxedos roast him in absentia, self-righteously toasting to a free press and making very bad “fake news” jokes.
Covering the two events side-by-side could be a self-own of the highest order.
“Score one for the counter programmer in chief. It's unfortunate that we can't set pens and political swords aside for a single night,” said one CNN executive. “It won't be a roast; it may in fact be the most earnest dinner in years. President Trump will celebrate his First Amendment rights in Harrisburg and many people who have dedicated their lives to journalism will do the same in D.C.”
According to two CNN sources, the network is planning to air a speech from the dinner from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — the duo that broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post. CNN will also likely go live for comedian Hasan Minhaj from The Daily Show, and air the president’s rally, too, the sources said.
A Fox News spokesperson said that the network is not planning to take the correspondents’ dinner live. The network has various anchors and executives attending the dinner, including Bret Baier and John Roberts. Fox’s Kevin Corke will also be covering Trump’s event in Pennsylvania.
On MSNBC, Chris Jansing will be anchoring from Washington, while Jacob Soboroff will be reporting at the dinner from the red carpet at the Washington Hilton, according to a spokesperson. Then, Ari Melber will provide coverage of Trump’s rally, some climate marches on Saturday, and the dinner, the network said.
Jeffrey Lord, who supports Trump on CNN, will be at the WHCD, and lives near where the rally will be held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He said local news reports said people will be in line at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, a full five hours before the 7:30 p.m. start time.
"This will be a hit, this area voted for him and the optics of all this are pretty good," he said. "The contrast of that and the event where I will be — he knows exactly what he’s doing."