Comedian Michelle Wolf Criticized for Routine at White House Press Corps Event

WASHINGTON—A comedian who performed Saturday at an annual Washington press corps dinner drew criticism from supporters of the Trump administration and some journalists for a routine they said crossed the line from humor into personal attacks.

The black-tie White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which journalists mix with administration officials and politicians, has often featured scorching comments about Washington figures.

This year’s event raised a debate about whether comedian Michelle Wolf had met the tone of the moment in politics or had gone too far with pointed jokes about White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway and Vice President Mike Pence, among others.

“I actually really like Sarah,” Ms. Wolf said of Ms. Sanders. “I think she’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”

Some took the comment as an attack on Ms. Sanders’ appearance. Ms. Wolf followed it with a description Ms. Sanders as “Uncle Tom, but for white women who disappoint other white women.”

She said of Ms. Conway: “If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?’’ She added: “I’m not suggesting she gets hurt; just stuck.”

Critics said they were horrified by the jokes, which they said went further than those told at past dinners. Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President George W. Bush, described the remarks about Ms. Sanders as “foul. It’s uncalled for. It’s nasty.” Writing on Twitter, he said White House staff should no longer attend.

“My take here was that the comedian Michelle Wolf went over the line,” said ABC News reporter and association board member Jonathan Karl, hosting “This Week” on Sunday.

Mr. Trump didn’t attend the dinner, instead holding a campaign rally in Washington, Mich. He wrote Sunday morning on Twitter: “Everyone is talking about the fact that the White House Correspondents Dinner was a very big, boring bust” and that the comedian “bombed.”

Ms. Wolf wrote “Thank you!” on Twitter in response to a complaint by Mr. Trump’s former White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, that the dinner was a disgrace.

She also wrote that in her remark about Ms. Sanders’ “perfect smoky eye” she had “complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials.”

Defenders of Ms. Wolf, including liberal critics of Mr. Trump, said that attacks on the comedian were misplaced and that officials and reporters should instead direct their attention at the president.

“A comedian crosses the line and Trump officials are outraged. The President repeatedly crosses the line, mocking disabled, speaking about women in vulgar terms etc. and what do we hear from those same officials—nothing,” wrote Joe Lockhart, a press secretary to President Bill Clinton, on Twitter.

The head of the White House Correspondents’ Association, reporter Margaret Talev, said on CNN on Sunday that she had sought to build a “spirit of unity” across the four-hour dinner, including by hosting an Egyptian activist freed from detention by Mr. Trump. She said she believed the 15-minute routine by Ms. Wolf had “to some extent” detracted from that message, but that comedians invited as entertainers over the past 30 years had often been controversial.

“It’s a night about free speech, and so, by tradition, we do not vet their monologue,” Ms. Talev said. “I think she brought to the night what she wanted to say.”

Ms. Wolf’s routine also included broader jabs at Congress, television media, and a number of comments about Mr. Trump related to allegations about adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and lewd remarks he made that aired during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a note to association members, Ms. Talev said Sunday that some in the press group had expressed “dismay” at Ms. Wolf’s comments and concerns about how it reflected on the group’s mission.

“Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility…Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission,” she wrote.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

Appeared in the April 30, 2018, print edition as ‘Comedian Is Criticized For Routine.’

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