President Trump Attempts Self-Deprecating Humor at Gridiron Club

After skipping such events in his first thirteen months in office, the President tried his hand at stand-up last night to mixed reviews.

President Trump did a stand-up routine at the Gridiron Club Dinner last night. It wasn’t broadcast but the reviews were mixed.

Not surprisingly, the Daily Beast, which filed it under Yikes!, gave it a thumbs down (“Trump Jokes Melania Might Leave Him at Gridiron Dinner“):

Just a few hours after he suggested that perhaps America should follow China’s lead with the whole “president for life” thing, President Donald Trump took the stage to tell some jokes at the annual Gridiron Club Dinner, an event intended to honor the free press in Washington, D.C.

Unlike the widely-televised White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which Trump decided to skip last year, there are no cameras allowed inside the white-tie Gridiron event. So while we don’t have the benefit of seeing video of the president’s performance, we do have the White House pool report—as well as eyewitness accounts—to give us a sense of what went down.

It was, most reviews indicate, slightly less disastrous than the 2016 Al Smith dinner, during which Trump was booed for his so-called “jokes” about how much Hillary Clinton “hates Catholics.”

In his remarks Saturday night, Trump acknowledged that he’s not known for self-deprecating humor by suggesting his staff warned him it could be a problem. “I told them not to worry. Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than I do,” the president joked.

Trump also excused his late arrival by suggesting that Jared Kushner couldn’t get through security. He said he offered Attorney General Jeff Sessions a ride to the event but he “recused himself,” belying a very real concern the president has expressed in the past.

“I won’t rule out talks with Kim Jong Un,” Trump said, per Axios. “As far as risks with talking with a mad man—that’s his concern, not mine.”

He combined an attack on CNN with a shot at his former chief adviser, saying, “It’s been a very tough year for CNN. They’ve lost a tremendous amount of credibility this year. And your best reporter, Steve Bannon. That guy leaked more than the Titanic. Boy, did he leak.”

According to Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn, Trump “humiliated” his wife, First Lady Melania Trump, who accompanied him to the event. He was likely referring to a joke Trump made about his recent spate of White House departures. “So many people have been leaving the White House. It’s invigorating since you want turnover. I like chaos. It really is good,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?”

Also not surprisingly, Fox News is more appreciative (“At Gridiron Dinner, Trump jokes on politics — but gets serious about North Korea talks“):

President Donald Trump on Saturday night traded humorous jabs with a cabal of lawmakers, administration officials, media figures and military officers at the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington.

But the president also used the occasion to deliver some serious remarks about North Korea.

“I won’t rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un, I just won’t,” Trump said, according to Politico. “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.”

Umm, I hope that was a joke.

Trump also laid out the conditions for any such discussions.

“By the way, a couple days ago they said we would like to talk, and I said, so would we, but you have to de-nuke, you have to de-nuke. So let’s see what happens … Maybe positive things are happening, I hope that’s true … We will be meeting and we’ll see if anything positive happens,” the president said.

That sounds like Trump going off-script more than anything else. The rest of the Fox report is cribbed from other reports but they end:

When others were speaking or performing, Trump was reportedly a good sport — laughing and applauding at times during the evening’s entertainment.

He closed by saying: “I just want to say this, this is one of the best times I’ve had with the media — this might be the most fun I’ve had since watching your faces on Election Night.”

CNN played it as a straight news story (“Trump tries self-deprecating humor at Gridiron dinner“):

President Donald Trump poked fun at himself and members of his administration who have given him grief at an annual Washington social event Saturday, joking about former chief strategist Steve Bannon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and even first lady Melania Trump.

At the Gridiron Club Dinner on Saturday night, a white-tie event typically including both journalists and politicians, and featuring jokes about both sides of the aisle, the President made light of a public feud with his attorney general, an embarrassing demotion of sorts for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and any possible tension in his marriage over alleged affairs.


Saturday was a rare appearance for the President, who has avoided events in the past where he might mingle with the media or Washington establishment. The annual closed-door dinner, hosted by the exclusive group of top Washington journalists, traditionally includes a night of jokes, skits and musical numbers.


Any sort of anger and frustration Trump might have felt over this past week, whether over Sessions’ decision to leave an investigation into alleged surveillance abuses to the Justice Department’s watchdog, a report that at least four nations sought to exploit Kushner, or the resignation of one of his closest aides, Hope Hicks, Trump didn’t show it.

“My staff was concerned that I couldn’t do self-deprecating humor, and I told them not to worry, nobody does self deprecating humor better than me,” Trump said.

Trump saved some of his edgier jokes for Democrats. He referred to House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi as “crazy,” quipped that Rep. Maxine Waters should take an IQ test, said he could kick “sleepy” former Vice President Joe Biden’s ass, and joked that Sen. Elizabeth Warren suggested the US, Iran and North Korea “smoke a peace pipe” — a remark about her claims of Native American heritage.

Trump, who has attacked the press as an “enemy of the people,” teased the media in more jovial manner Saturday night.
Wrapping up his speech, Trump joked that he had to be “up early” to watch “Fox and Friends,” but that the night was “one of the best times I can ever remember having with the media.”

“This might be the best night I’ve had since watching your faces on election night,” Trump said.

Ditto NBC News (“Trump puts feud with media on ice at joke-filled Gridiron dinner“). I won’t excerpt their report, as it contains nothing not already covered.

It’s really hard to judge these things without watching the clip, which likely won’t be forthcoming here. Most of the jokes are pretty good, all things considered. Certainly, better than the lines he delivered at the infamous Al Smith dinner.

Having presidents attempt to do stand-up a couple times a year has always struck me as rather odd. But all of the presidents going back to at least Ronald Reagan have been pretty damned good at it. Many have had excellent comic timing. Trump, at least since emerging as a politician, has not displayed that quality.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    Now he’s gonna be furious at himself for having said such mean things about himself.

  2. Mark Ivey says:

    “Who’s going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?”

    WooT loL

  3. Daryl’s other brother Darryl says:

    You need to be smart to be funny. Trump is not smart.
    Has anyone ever foreseen a President that is completely incompetent? This past week has scared the crap out of me. Trump is mad, so he starts a trade war. What happens next. What if he, in frustration, starts a shooting war?
    And where the fvck are the other leaders standing up and saying this is nonsense, and it’s dangerous?

  4. Slugger says:

    I am willing to give him credit for trying. Norms are enforced by social pressures in all of us. This is not an unalloyed good. A sociopath is somewhat immune to social pressure but will learn to fake it. Keep it up, Don.

  5. de stijl says:


    A sociopath is somewhat immune to social pressure but will learn to fake it. Keep it up, Don.

    I like that Trump went there. He was willing to parrot one self-deprecating joke written for him.

    But in a sane world, Trump would have that cathartic realization that he is a narcissistic bully-boy on Celebrity Big Brother and not while he resides in the White House and is the President of the United States of America.

    We are enduring this awful E!-lebrity thought-experiment of a Presidency because 46% of us decided that it would be interesting to see what would happen if we were to re-cast the role normally played by the Morgan Freeman / Bill Pullman type with a Trump like character.

    That, and we also have this fundamentally flawed electoral process that allows the person who lost the actual vote count to win the Presidency.

  6. de stijl says:

    I now have a greater appreciation for the notion that the Bernie-bros bandied about; the so-called “heighten the contradictions” argument.

    Imagine that Hillary Clinton won the election (yeah-yeah-yeah, I get it. She actually won the vote count but lost the electoral vote, but the rules are the rules. Deal.)

    Bear with me, we’re going alternate history here.

    Okay, new time-line in which Hillary wins in 2016 because she wins Michigan or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin (doesn’t really matter which one – I’ll just ret-con that later.)

    The Senate is still the Senate and the House is still the House. We still have McConnell and Ryan in their respective roles.

    Here is the thought-experiment proper: What would have happened had Clinton won in 2016?

  7. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    This is JUST like when Trump wisecracked about Hillary’s emails. Right after it came out that Hillary had deleted over 30,000 emails that she pinky-swore were strictly yoga routines, Chelsea wedding plans, and other personal stuff, Trump said — to considerable laughter — “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

    You’ll STILL find people here who say that was Trump inviting Russia to “hack” Hillary, because they’re so emotionally invested in hating Trump that the can’t afford to publicly recognize humor.

    Then again, maybe they’re still scarred by Obama. His “jokes” had the disturbing tendency to come true.

    Obama “joked” about siccing the IRS on his political enemies… and that happened.

    Obama “joked” about killing American citizens with drone strikes… and that happened.

    Obama “joked” when he went on Jimmy Kimmel and read a Donald Trump tweet: “Obama will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States — @RealDonaldtrump,” Obama read, quoting the GOP presidential hopeful. “Well, @RealDonaldTrump, at least I will go down as a president,” Obama quipped. And that, too happened.

    Maybe, subconsciously, they’re terrified that if Trump “jokes” about being a madman and being president for life, those might come true, too.

    (Citations: President Obama at the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.” And President Obama in 2009, after having his NCAA bracket busted: “I have to tell you, I really thought this was much ado about nothing, but I do think we all learned an important lesson. I learned never again to pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket. It won’t happen again. President Crow and the Board of Regents will soon learn about being audited by the IRS.” )

  8. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    @de stijl: Here is the thought-experiment proper: What would have happened had Clinton won in 2016?

    Roger Kimball beat you there.