Michelle Wolf’s Routine Sets Off a Furor at an Annual Washington Dinner

WASHINGTON — The panna cotta had been served and the First Amendment duly celebrated by the time the comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage on Saturday at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

What followed was a roast that took unflinching aim at some of the notables in the room — and quickly opened a partisan divide, largely but not entirely along partisan lines, over the limits of comedy and comity under a president who rarely hesitates to attack the press.

Ms. Wolf described Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, as “an Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women” and took a shot at her “smokey eye” makeup, saying that it was made from the ashes of “burnt facts.” She called Ivanka Trump “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.” She labeled Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, an inveterate liar, and asked: “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?”

“I’m not suggesting she get hurt, just stuck,” Ms. Wolf added, puckishly, as an icy silence — and a few scattered chortles — fell over the black-tie crowd here. Ms. Conway sat expressionlessly. Ms. Sanders, granted a seat of honor on the dais, limited her reaction to an arched eyebrow and pursed lips.

It was an earthy performance by Correspondents’ dinner standards, if nothing out of place in an average comedy club. But feedback from the political left and right quickly leapt to extremes.

“It was personally offensive,” Brian Kilmeade, a co-host of “Fox & Friends,” said in the ballroom, minutes after Ms. Wolf ended her set.

“To me, that was an attack to impress Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” Mr. Kilmeade added, previewing a line of criticism that would be dominant on Fox News by Sunday morning. “Congratulations, when the three of you go out to dinner, I’m sure you’ll be laughing a lot. But in terms of the people here and the people at home — totally offensive, horrible choice. In fact, it’s the reason why the president didn’t want to go.”

Critics of President Trump — who is no stranger to lobbing insult-comic punch lines at his opponents and is the first president to outright skip the Correspondents’ gala since Jimmy Carter — wondered what the fuss was about.

“Before we criticize Michelle Wolf, let’s remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things that any president in history has ever done,” said Howard Fineman, a left-leaning analyst at NBC News and MSNBC. “Just have a little perspective.”

By Sunday morning, Ms. Wolf, a contributor to “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” whose Netflix talk show starts in May, had seemingly scandalized Washington’s intersecting political and media tribes. President Trump weighed in on Twitter, writing, “Everyone is talking about the fact that the White House Correspondents Dinner was a very big, boring bust.”

In one Twitter exchange, Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary — who recently turned up at Madame Tussauds to promote a wax statue of Melania Trump — described the dinner as “a disgrace,” netting around 4,000 retweets.

“Thank you!” Ms. Wolf replied. By Sunday morning, her response had about 13,000 retweets.

Prominent Washington journalists, meanwhile, took pains to defend Ms. Sanders — earning their own opprobrium from some liberals who asked why reporters were sticking up for an administration that routinely impugns their work.

Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News correspondent, tweeted that an “apology is owed” to the press secretary. Her network colleague Mika Brzezinski wrote that “watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable.”

Several reporters who cover the White House approached Ms. Sanders in the Hilton ballroom to express sympathy in the immediate aftermath of Ms. Wolf’s monologue. Later, at a windswept after party hosted by NBC News, Ms. Sanders appeared in good spirits as reporters swarmed her. (She even took time to chastise one journalist for asking a question at a briefing that she disliked.)

Going back to Stephen Colbert’s blistering monologue in 2006 — delivered as President George W. Bush sat unsmiling a few feet away — the comic portion of the Correspondents’ dinner has courted controversy. Roast-style humor is an odd fit for protocol-oriented Washington, and some comedians praised Ms. Wolf for discomfiting the audience of elite journalists and administration officials.

“If you want to focus on the journalism do a boring award show,” tweeted Kathy Griffin, the comedian whose own brush with crude presidential humor — posting a photo of herself holding what appeared to be Mr. Trump’s decapitated head — led to her losing a CNN job. “Journalism all about the 1st amendment. If you don’t see the import of what @michelleisawolf did tonight then you don’t get it.”

The doyens of Washington did not agree. Mike Allen, a prime voice of the city’s establishment, declared in his newsletter on Sunday: “Media hands Trump embarrassing win.” There were even whispers about a revolt against the Correspondents’ Association by news organizations displeased by the night’s events. (The New York Times stopped attending the dinner in 2008.)

“My aim — and the way I sought to put together the program — was to build the spirit of unity in that room,” Margaret Talev, president of the Correspondents’ Association, said on CNN on Sunday. She pointed out that the dinner had praised Mr. Trump for meeting with aspiring journalists at the White House and featured the story of an Egyptian social activist who was freed from prison with the help of the Trump administration.

She said she regretted that Ms. Wolf’s monologue had overshadowed the rest of the evening, but added: “When the entertainer is a comedian — as has been the case for the last 30 years or so — they are often controversial, they are often to some extent polarizing, or provocative, and it’s a night about free speech.”

Ms. Wolf’s 19-minute set also took on Democrats and the news media itself. She quipped that “it’s kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan,” and joked about CNN’s hyperactive approach to coverage.

“You guys love breaking news, and you did it, you broke it!” Ms. Wolf said. “Good work! The most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles.”

Her most cutting joke came at the end, when the 32-year-old comic took direct aim at the journalists in the room. Mr. Trump, she said, “has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”

Kyle Pope, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, posted a message on Twitter suggesting that even journalists had had enough of the annual ritual. “The #WHCD debacle was inevitable, destined to be either sycophantic, on one extreme, or mean spirited, on the other. Neither is a good look at a time when trust in media is tenuous. Can we finally all agree to put an end to this thing?”

Speaking with The Times in February, after her selection as the evening’s entertainer was announced, Ms. Wolf said that comedians at the Correspondents’ dinner “are not necessarily performing for the room.”

“You’re performing for everyone that’s watching it,” Ms. Wolf said, adding: “If you’re willing to say something when someone’s not there, you should definitely be willing to say it to their face.”