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What to watch during what could be Biden’s final White House correspondents’ dinner

President has made increasingly personal comments about Donald Trump lately

President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton on April 29, 2023.
President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton on April 29, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Joe Biden’s aviator sunglasses likely won’t be far away Saturday night when the president cracks some jokes at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. But not everyone will be laughing during Washington’s yearly spectacle — even if “Dark Brandon” makes another appearance.

That’s Biden’s political alter ego, his team’s attempt to flip the conservative slogan “Let’s Go Brandon” on his foes. Biden ended his comedy set last year by slipping on his signature shades and pretending to morph into his edgier persona.

Official Washington will do the same Saturday evening, with reporters and officials trading their wrinkled business attire of comfortable shoes and coffee-stained shirts and blazers for sleek tuxedos and shimmering gowns. As thousands of dinner attendees fill the Washington Hilton’s massive ballroom, the sound of the clinking of glasses and plates will be matched only by the polite — and sometimes boozy — chitchat around hundreds of round tables with bright white tablecloths.

Much will be at stake as business deals are floated and potential sources are wooed. But the same will be the case for Biden and “Dark Brandon” as they take the lectern around 10 p.m.

On the one hand, Biden’s correspondents’ dinner set, as all annual presidential quip-fests are, will be intended to be light-hearted — while also landing some pointed rhetorical jabs on his political foes. Yet history suggests falling too deeply into the “Dark Brandon” persona could backfire.

“These appearances are about trying to deal with both the needs of the campaign and the appropriateness in the moment of issues related to the presidency,” said Martha Kumar of the Presidential Transition Project, who studies presidential relations with the press. “It’s a combination of a serious discussion of important issues and some levity.”

Here are three things to watch for during official Washington’s annual celebration of the First Amendment — and itself.

Protest posture?

From college campuses to the Supreme Court to some of Biden’s own events, protesters have been disrupting things for weeks. The president has taken to letting activists have their say, briefly. The event has seen protesters outside before, on a range of issues.

When asked several times Thursday by a reporter if the typical security deployment around the venue will be beefed up, a Washington Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman did not point to any such plan.

“Unless a group files for a permit, they kind of just show up,” the spokeswoman said. “Sometimes we can detect protests on social media, if they announce themselves. Otherwise, we work with our partners, both federal and local when they ask for assistance.”

She declined to comment on whether the U.S. Secret Service has formally asked for a bigger MPD presence. A Secret Service spokesperson declined to comment about Saturday’s security plan.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, was asked about protests during a Wednesday briefing. But she did not directly comment on the possibility that the areas around the Hilton could look like the protest-riddled college campus in the 1994 film “PCU.”

“So, look, we know it’s an incredibly painful time for many communities. You hear us say that often,” she told reporters. “You have heard us mention the president meeting with different community … leaders and community members, obviously, from the … different communities, obviously, the different groups, to be more [precise], whether it’s Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, Palestinian Americans, to have those difficult conversation[s], to have those honest conversations.”

With the Middle East again a tinderbox, Biden might opt against any quips about the region or pro-Palestinian protesters at home.

‘Fired Gary Busey’

One of the yearly event’s most memorable moments came in 2011, and could provide some guardrails for Biden — and “Dark Brandon.”

Then-President Barack Obama looked out at the black tie audience and saw then-reality television host and businessman Donald Trump, who had spent years raising a ruckus about the Hawaiian-born chief executive’s birth certificate. Obama and his team decided to get even.

“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald,” Obama said to laughter. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Obama also poked fun at Trump on “The Apprentice,” which was an NBC reality show depicting the future president as a business guru judging contestants’ attempts to wow him with their business acumen. Obama pointed to a cooking challenge on one episode.

“Just recently, in an episode of ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around,” Obama deadpanned. “But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey.

“And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night,” Obama said as Trump stared straight ahead at his table. “Well handled, sir. Well handled.”

Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative and Trump adviser who was convicted of obstructing a congressional probe into Trump’s first presidential campaign and possible ties to Russia, said the 2011 dinner changed U.S. history.

“I think that is the night he resolves to run for president,” Stone said on a 2016 PBS “Frontline” documentary titled “The Choice 2016.”

“I think that he is kind of motivated by it: ‘Maybe I’ll just run. Maybe I’ll show them all,’” Stone added.

How hard will Biden poke this proverbial bear?

Biden’s finale?

With Trump leading Biden — though many margins have narrowed recently — in polls of voters nationally and in battleground states, Saturday could be the last appearance by a sitting president for nearly a half-decade.

As president, Trump skipped the event three times. Organizers insisted the event did not lose any luster, contending it always has been about the First Amendment, not the president or celebrity guests. (It was canceled in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The White House Correspondents’ Association also nixed the event due to the pandemic in 2021, with Biden bringing back the traditional presidential appearance when the dinner returned in April 2022.

Presidents and their staffs typically spend a few weeks working on comedy sets for the WHCA dinner. Notably, Biden over the last few weeks has taken some rather personal jabs at the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

“And, by the way, remember when he was trying to deal with COVID? He said just inject a little bleach in your veins,” Biden said Wednesday, misquoting something Trump said as president in April 2020. “He missed. It all went to his hair.

“Look, I shouldn’t have said that,” a widely smiling Biden told the North America’s Building Trades Unions legislative conference as the audience in the same Hilton ballroom where he will be the headliner Saturday roared with laughter. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. You guys are a bad influence on me.”

Trump’s campaign has yet to comment on Biden’s third WHCA dinner appearance. But top campaigns officials on Thursday offered something of an assessment of how they think he’s doing.

“Joe Biden has a base problem. No matter how hard the White House and its communications department, the Mainstream Media, try to make it seem otherwise,” according to a memo from Chris LaCivita, Trump campaign aide and Republican National Committee chief of staff, and Susie Wiles, his de facto campaign manager.

“Joe Biden’s cognitive decline is getting worse,” the duo contended in the memo, released by the Trump campaign. “A person does not need a medical degree to see it, and he is one fall away from political disaster.”

The 81-year-old Biden will get a shot, perhaps his last one in that setting, to show he can stay up late, as he did during his March State of the Union address, and appear vibrant and sharp — or vibrant enough in the minds of voters.

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