At CNN’s aptly named “Political Hangover” brunch on Sunday morning, in the lobby of The Line Hotel, there was Poppy Harlow, chatting with Dana Bash. There were Wolf Blitzer and Chris Wallace. And there were the climate protesters, staging a sit-in in front of the Bloody Mary station. Metro police were trying to talk them into leaving, and eventually they got up, waving goodbye as they chanted something about oil. Meanwhile, Tiesto was preparing for a live DJ set. CNN CEO Chris Licht donned a Tiesto hat for the occasion.
It was a fitting way to wind down the White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend, which is a mix of the serious and the frivolous, ranging from talk of grave matters to simply letting loose. Over the weekend, journalists championed the 1st Amendment, gave out awards and scholarships, and spoke out on behalf of missing and imprisoned colleagues. The press, said Joe Biden on Saturday night, is a pillar “of a free society, not the enemy.” The president, as is customary, also cracked jokes in his dinner speech, with targets such as Fox News, Ron DeSantis, and Elon Musk. The weekend also saw no shortage of selfies and media gossip—the ousters of Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon among the hot topics—and jockeying to get into the top soirees. “I have friends at NBC and they can’t even get into the NBC afterparty,” I overheard one party guest say during a whirlwind three days in the Washington media circus, which, yes, included a stop at the NBC event.
Whether the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is over, was better during previous administrations, or is at its core problematic—due to the chummy interactions between journalists and government officials—has been hashed out many times before. There seemed to be more parties than ever this past weekend, a tradition reemerging from both the Trump-era doldrums and the pandemic, which was still wreaking havoc on the festivities just last year.
Leaving past debates aside, what I was most interested in this weekend was taking the pulse of the press corps amid a flurry of outlets’ closures or cutbacks, and as the media girds for a likely rematch between President Biden and former President Donald Trump, who was famously roasted at this very dinner before his political rise.
On Friday, my first stop was the Crooked Media party, hosted in the alley of Dauphine’s—a last-minute solution to the rain. The party for the liberal media company co-founded by former Obama staffers Jon Lovett, Jon Favreau, and Tommy Vietor was packed with a mix of journalists, Hill staffers, and Friends of the Pod, sipping Pimm’s cups and white wine. In fact, it was so crowded that I heard a Dauphine’s employee telling people that the event was at capacity, and that they had to wait for some people to leave before reentering. This did not go over well with Susan Rice, the president’s outgoing top domestic policy adviser, who, when politely turned away, politely replied, “No.” It wasn’t long before someone came and got Rice, and then explained to the guy who was working the door, “We’ve got some VIPs.”
“There’s capacity, and then there’s DC capacity,” Lovett told me, half joking.
Among those who’d made it inside were MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, who was earning praise for his Matt Taibbi interview; the New York Times’s Astead Herndon and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (the Times may have pulled its journalists out of the dinner years ago, but no one said anything about the parties!); comedian Billy Eichner; and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who was posing for a photo with her former colleague from the Biden press shop, Jen Psaki, and the Crooked Media guys. I’d found Psaki earlier, clad in a sparkly blue gown, catching up with fellow Obama alum and Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer. How was she feeling about a Biden-Trump rematch? “I think people underestimate Trump—even though he’s at 25 percent approval and has been indicted once and impeached twice, he still has a base of support,” she said. “It’s ultimately going to come down to how they make people feel, and we’re not gonna know what that looks like for, like, a year.” Does she prefer Trump or DeSantis as an opponent for Biden? “If we’re looking at the DeSantis of today, Desantis. Because he doesn’t have a strategy.”
Next I arrived at the Semafor party at co-founder Justin Smith’s house in Kalorama, the ritzy neighborhood that’s home to various embassies and power players. (The Obamas live across the street.) I walked in to find Semafor’s other co-founder, Ben Smith, chatting with Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist and recalling when the conservative activist used to be a favorite source for DC journos. Speaking of, Smith called over an economics reporter to make an introduction.
In the living room, where the music was blasting, I immediately spotted Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner—at six-foot-seven, you really can’t miss him—and Politico CEO Goli Sheikholeslami, standing with The Information’s Jessica Lessin. People struggled to hear each other over the music and there was no liquor, as one reporter complained to me, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, snacking on Michelin-star-chef–prepared bites and trading their favorite theories as to why Fox News axed Carlson. “This party is swarming with media reporters,” the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey told me in passing as he made his way to the bar.
Politico columnist Michael Schaffer walked in with The Atlantic’s Mark Leibovich. How did it feel to be partying while the media burns? “That’s basically the tension we live with every year,” Leibovich told me. “The question of what exactly we’re celebrating on this weekend has never sufficiently been answered, and yet, here we are.”
By 9:30 the party had started to empty out, with people heading either to the Axios/Live Nation event or to the UTA party. Waiting for my ride on Smith’s front porch, I overheard Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff saying hello to CNN’s Licht, whose chief of staff was ushering him into a black Escalade heading to Axios. “Given the state of media, we all can use a drink,” Bankoff told me with a laugh.