Editor’s note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
WASHINGTON — Donald J. Trump hates a lot of things, from “fake news” to intelligence leaks to even Nordstrom.
But my money says the thing Trump hates the most is being laughed at. And one of the worst comedic beat downs Trump ever took on national TV was in 2011, the last time Trump attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD), where he was comically crushed by comedian Seth Meyers (not to mention President Obama, who also got in a few good jabs).
That’s why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Trump announced on Saturday night via Twitter, two months ahead of time, that he wouldn’t be showing up at this year’s WHCD: “I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening.”
Trump will be the first President since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to miss this annual tradition. And the only reason Reagan missed it was because he was recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt.
Some on Team Trump will try to spin this announcement as Trump’s attempt to avoid hobnobbing with the “dishonest media.” Don’t fall for that. Trump won’t attend because being a punchline rattles him.
Trump has been lashing at out comedians long before being sworn in as the 45th president. At the 2011 WHCD, Meyers unleashed a barrage of jokes at Trump, including this line that caused Trump’s face to become even more orange: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”
One of the best jokes of the night was President Obama’s, mocking Trump’s experience as host of Celebrity Apprentice as “preparation” to be president: “Ultimately, you didn’t blame [rapper] Lil Jon or [singer] Meatloaf, you fired Gary Busey. These are the kinds of decisions that keep me up at night.”
Trump responded to the jokes by calling Meyers a “stutterer” and slamming his delivery as “not very good.” Trump also complained to Fox News the next day: “I didn’t know that I’d be virtually the sole focus … It was almost like, is there anyone else they could talk about?” (Note: This may be the first time ever Trump complained about getting too much attention!)
In 2013, Trump, this time outraged by Jon Stewart’s jokes about him on “The Daily Show,” took to Twitter not only to mock Stewart as having “no talent” but also curiously to mention Stewart’s real last name, asking, “why did he change his name from Jonathan Leibowitz.” Last year Stewart even suggested that this Trump tweet was anti-Semitic, saying, “I think this guy’s trying to let people know I’m a Jew.”
That same year, Trump was so upset by Bill Maher’s joke that Trump was “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan,” that he sued the comedian for $5 million. (Trump later dropped the lawsuit.)
And Trump has gone after “Saturday Night Live” and Alec Baldwin numerous times in the last few months for the show’s comedic barbs at his expense. Trump even called for the cancellation of the iconic late night show that has skewered multiple presidents since it premiered in 1975.
You get the idea, Trump hates knowing that people are laughing at him. And his goal in lashing out is to clearly silence comedians — even by simply causing them to self-censor to avoid the wrath of Trump.
His desire to silence comic dissent raises the more sinister reason Trump is refusing to attend the WHCD. Trump, like dictators in the Middle East where I’ve performed comedy countless times, don’t want to be publicly ridiculed. The leaders there prefer being revered — or even feared– but can’t endure being mocked, because they believe it will undermine their power. Given that Trump seems to be following a “Dictator for Dummies” playbook with his attempts to de-legitimize our media, intelligence agencies and even our judiciary, this is plausible.
But there’s also another possible reason Trump doesn’t want to go. Simply put: Trump could never compete with Obama’s comedy chops and Trump knows it. He knows his performance at the WHCD will be compared to former President Obama’s performances, and that’s very bad for Trump. Objectively speaking there has not been a modern-day president in as good as Obama at delivering jokes. Period.
In contrast, while Trump can be funny off the cuff, he’s awful at delivering prepared jokes. Check out his performance in October at the Al Smith dinner. Trump read the jokes like he was reading an eye chart. He was even booed by the audience for some mean spirited jokes.
It’s likely we may never know the real reason why Trump plans to skip the WHCD. But he is truly missing out an opportunity to laugh at himself, which might just help elevate his historically low approval ratings.
Personally, my hope is that Alec Baldwin appears at the WHCD as Trump. That would be comedy gold! Or the WHCD could mock Trump in absentia, possibly having a Trump blow up doll sit on the dais.
But if our President thinks not attending will insulate him from being mocked, he’s very mistaken. Donald Trump may ultimately be able to build a wall or impose a travel ban, but he will never, ever be able to stop comedy.