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Correspondents’ dinner in the White House is back after 2 years of pandemic hiatus

WASHINGTON (AP) – A large portion of Washington is ready to party, as if it were 2019, before the coronavirus, where the biggest risk at the White House Annual Press Gala was more likely to be jokes that tampered with many political feathers.

After the pandemic interrupted the event in 2020 and 2021, White House Correspondents’ Association dinner returns Saturday night, with Joe Biden as the first incumbent president to attend for six years after Donald Trump rejected it while in office.

Comedy is also back, with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah as the headliner. Celebrities are, too: Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson are expected to appear, and comedy studio Funny or Die is co-sponsoring an afterparty. The event also draws a large selection of officials and other prominent figures.

"Daily show" Host Trevor Noah is chairing the dinner at the White House Correspondents Association in 2022.
“Daily Show” host Trevor Noah is leading the dinner for the White House Correspondents Association in 2022.

Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP

“Seeing the President of the United States come back and the dinner coming back, I think, signals more than a break in the pandemic,” said Harold Holzer, author of the book “The Presidents vs. The Press.” “We are confident talking to each other again.

“I think this relationship – even though it’s a one-night stand where jokes are exchanged and people make fun of others and each other – it’s a very healthy thing.”

It feels like the return of a minimum of normality for the nation’s capital, but it’s also a reminder that COVID-19 remains a threat. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive this week, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top coronavirus expert, skipped dinner “because of my individual assessment of my personal risk.”

That raised the question of whether the 79-year-old Biden should go. The president will miss the meal and show up later for the program. He plans to be masked when he is not talking.

US President Joe Biden coughs as he comments on further support for Ukraine's war effort against Russia from the Roosevelt Room in the White House on April 28, 2022 in Washington, DC.
US President Joe Biden coughs as he comments on further support for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia from the Roosevelt Room in the White House on April 28, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

Biden mentioned the dinner during a speech this week about Russia’s war against Ukraine and said: “I have always had respect for the press, but I can not tell you how much respect I have to see them in these zones where they are under fire. . “

“Imagine if we did not get that information,” the president added. “It would be a different world.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s plan to attend “stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press on an almost daily basis but also never attended the dinner.” Trump happily boycotted the event, sometimes branding the media as “the enemy of the people.”

Following the recent Gridiron Club press conference in Washington, dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and Biden’s Cabinet and journalists, tested positive for COVID-19.

The White House emphasizes the abundance of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce by 90% severe outbreaks of the virus among those at greatest risk. Still, Psaki has said of Biden, “We want to be very clear that it is possible that he can test positive for COVID, just like any American.”

This is because the United States is experiencing an increase in COVID cases from a highly contagious subvariant of omicron, with confirmed infections rising to around 44,000 a day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Although well below the maximum limit of 800,000 plus cases per day nationwide below the height of the omicron wave earlier this year, current statistics are likely to undercut due to the increased availability of home covid-19 tests if results may not be reported to health authorities.

The White House Correspondents’ Association said it would require antigen testing the same day for its dinner attendees, even before the Gridiron outbreak. It has since added a vaccination requirement for those attending Saturday’s gala, which will have a capacity of over 2,600 and is fully booked.

Despite the recent wave of COVID-19 cases, virus deaths and hospitalizations are close to or at pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving to be less severe than previous virus strains. Just over 300 people die in the United States each day from the virus, down from more than 2,600 daily earlier this year – with about 1,600 admissions a day, falling from a peak of more than 21,000 daily in January.

The Correspondents’ Dinner debuted in 1921. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend three years later, and everyone has since, except Trump. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, however, chose not to attend each year of their presidency, and Ronald Reagan, who then recovered from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 agreement – but called in from Camp David.

“What I think this shows is restoring the health of the relationship,” said Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. “It’s still with barbs, there are still tense moments. But it’s ok.”

After comedian Michelle Wolf’s sharp satire sparked controversy in 2018, the event the following year featured historian Ron Chernow. The return of the celebrities this time is reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s administration, in which people like George Clooney, Charlize Theron and Viola Davis participated.

As vice president in 2014, Biden appeared in a comedy video with the star of HBO’s “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who caused a great deal of laughter at the correspondents’ dinner. The White House’s director of speechwriting, Vinay Reddy, and longtime Biden adviser Mike Donilon worked on Biden’s remarks for this year, the White House said, listening to material from a number of people both inside and outside the government.

Psaki already acknowledged that he was trying to lower expectations and said the speech is “not funny at all. Just too funny.” However, the president’s attempts at humor can be difficult.

At the 2011 dinner, Obama put a rude Trump – in his presence – over Trump’s fictitious allegations about the then president’s birth certificate. Obama ended up thinking about Trump taking his job one day, saying “he would definitely bring some change to the White House” as the banquet hall screens flashed a parody of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s magnificent facade featuring a Trump logo , golden bars, a digital clock and a sign proclaiming “Hotel, casino, golf course, presidential suite.”

It turned out to be prophetic, since Trump obviously followed Obama – even though the oversights he eventually brought to the presidency stopped putting his name on the White House.

Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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