Christmas party season in Washington this year will conclude without a White House party for the press. But if the development has surprised anybody in the Capitol, they’re not showing it.
The fact that the Washington Post’s style section writers won’t be able to write about the White House press party hardly makes any difference, there were countless other Christmas parties in the White House. Many of them featured the president, though he reportedly hates them. He hates the standing in line for pictures and the faces that he doesn’t recognize, and he probably hates most of all that the Christmas party season has little do with Donald Trump.
For years, the more rational critics of the Washington press corps have complained that the White House Christmas party for the media is the exact sort of affair that blurs the line between responsible journalism and kiss-ass reporting.
When Hunter S. Thompson first came to Washington, he called the cocktail party relationships between the press and politicians “the most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism” and announced that he would have no part in it—of course, he still drank with plenty of politicians and once rode in the backseat of a car with Nixon. One of the main critiques that Joan Didion offers in Political Fictions, is that the press in D.C. is mostly lazy and willing to be bought for access. She penned an entire essay on why Bob Woodward was a worthless Washington stenographer. Even Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post and close friend to JFK mentions in his memoir that he grew uncomfortable with the elbow-rubbing.
The White House decision to not host its Christmas party also betrays one of the primary lapses that we’ve seen President Trump make: He can’t even pretend to enjoy the trappings of the presidency.
The annual White House press party is only one of the many events where we are expected to mingle with the subjects of our reporting and pretend that we are still unbiased. Another one that is infinitely more dull is the Correspondents’ Dinner in April. But President Trump shattered a long-standing tradition and didn’t appear at the dinner in 2018. It meant heartbreak for more than a few reporters—the same reporters who were horrified when comedian Michelle Wolf decided she wasn’t going to play Washington’s white-gloves game.
But those reporters seem to have finally realized that Donald Trump and his administration doesn’t like them. And that the White House, even the impersonal machine of it, isn’t interested in befriending them.
The White House decision to not host its Christmas party also betrays one of the primary lapses that we’ve seen President Trump make: He can’t even pretend to enjoy the trappings of the presidency. No president (or even most senators) truly enjoys appearing at endless parties or catering to the press or playing nice with Capitol Hill leaders, but this president doesn’t even feign enjoyment of those parts of the job that we always just assumed were necessary.
It’s even stunning how little responsibility the president would have had if he’d chosen to throw a party for the press. The East Wing is responsible for the decorations, and it’s not as if Trump would have even glanced at the guest list. He would have been expected to stand in a corner, nod at a few people, maybe have a conversation with a Fox & Friends host, then quickly disappear to his bedroom to watch the news anchors talking about him.
As much as Donald Trump insults the press and calls us the enemy of the people, we want him more. We have this masochistic relationship with the most powerful man in the world.
While the White House’s Christmas party for the press probably wasn’t a productive exercise in Washington routine, there are others where Trump has fallen that deserve to be revisited. For example, presidents usually do a sit-down interview during the Super Bowl because it guarantees a massive audience. Trump shunned that tradition. Sometimes President Obama appeared in the briefing room and would call reporters by their first names—you won’t catch Trump in that pit of vipers.
This presents the obvious logical conundrum: As much as Donald Trump insults the press and calls us the enemy of the people, we want him more. We want press briefings and Christmas parties and Super Bowl interviews because we have this masochistic relationship with the most powerful man in the world. We find ourselves complaining about Trump not playing the Washington game because playing the Washington game was always fun, and it’s downright thrilling under this president who regularly implicates himself in crimes when answering questions.
For the television reporters, Trump is a lottery ticket with each appearance, but even for those of us who make our livings writing about this man, he’s fascinating to cover because he has all the predictability of a train wreck. The Christmas party probably wouldn’t have been the setting of anything extraordinary, but what if he called Jim Acosta a pig? What if he told a network executive that he was siccing the FCC on them? It would have been horrible and a stain on the presidency, but Trump has already flushed any remaining presidential decorum down the toilet. At least we would be in the room when he did it again.