President Barack Obama continued a Washington tradition during his final White House Correspondents’ Association dinner appearance by jabbing the media, in particular a few sharp elbows from him and the gala’s comedic host at CNN.
CNN typically is perhaps the leading target of the president and the annual dinner’s host, Larry Wilmore of Comedy Central . And the 2016 incarnation of what’s known on social media as #WHCD was no exception.
In fact, several of the jokes at CNN’s expense from Obama and Wilmore drew gasps and groans from the 2,600 in attendance at the Washington Hilton.
“I won’t lie, look, this is a tough transition,” Obama said of his pending move back to private life when his second term ends in January. “It’s hard.”
WH Correspondents’ Dinner Slideshow
“Key staff are now starting to leave the White House. Even reporters have left me,” Obama said. “Savannah Guthrie, she has left the White House press corps to host the ‘Today’ show. Norah O’Donnell left the briefing room to host ‘CBS This Morning.’ Jake Tapper left journalism to join CNN.”
[Related: Hopping Through White House Correspondents Dinner] After this and other jabs, there were only a smattering of audible “oooohs,” almost drowned out by silence in an apparent collective rejection of the jokes’ premise. Such moments are a true #ThisTown role reversal, as it’s typically presidents and other politicians who tell journalists they have no choice but to “reject the premise of your question.”
This isn’t the first time Obama and his team of writers have taken a whack at the Atlanta-based cable news outlet.
“I want to thank our host for the evening, a Chicago girl, the incredibly talented Cecily Strong,” he said in 2015. “On Saturday Night Live, Cecily impersonates CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin, which is surprising, because usually the only people impersonating journalists on CNN are journalists on CNN.”
And in 2013, Obama swung this rhetorical elbow at the cable network: “And of course, the White House press corps is here. I know CNN has taken some knocks lately, but the fact is I admire their commitment to cover all sides of a story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate.”
[Related: Larry Wilmore: Trump is a ‘Shallow Fool’] But on Saturday night, Obama left it to Wilmore, who hosts the news-opinion program “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central, to swing the sharpest elbows at CNN.
“CNN is here tonight. I’ve been watching CNN a long time,” Wilmore said. “Yep. Used to watch it back when it was a news network. I did.”
When the crowd seemed unamused, the comedian quipped: “What, is it all CNN here tonight?”
He wasn’t finished skewering the network with a joke set that has won him both scorn and praise: “I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t get enough of that CNN countdown clock. Now we can see exactly when they hit zero in the ratings.”
Brutal. But the CNN-directed line that got the most reaction — including a returned middle-finger salute to Wilmore from its target — was this one: “I should say some of America’s finest black journalists are here tonight. Don Lemon’s here, too. Hey, Don, how’s it going? Alleged journalist Don Lemon, everybody.”
A CNN spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
On Monday, a CNN reporter asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the latest jokes at her network’s expense. He assured her the president does not, in fact, believe CNN has a problem with its journalistic integrity, adding the ribbing was “all in good fun.”
Obama and Wilmore also took some swings at other news outlets at Saturday’s soirée.
“I understand the news business is tough these days,” Obama said. “It keeps changing all the time. Every year at this dinner somebody makes a joke about Buzzfeed, for example, changing the media landscape. And every year The Washington Post laughs a little bit less hard. Kind of a silence there. Especially at the Washington Post table.”
Wilmore had a few gems for CNN’s top two rivals, including this white-hot quip at the start of his set: “Welcome to ‘Negro Night’ here at the Washington Hilton, or as Fox News will report, ‘Two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.’ That’s how they do us, right?”
And MSNBC got the Wilmore treatment, too: “MSNBC here tonight … Which actually now stands for ‘Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents.’ Am I wrong? They … fired Melissa Harris-Perry, they canceled Joy Reid, they booted Touré. I heard they put Chris Hayes on probation because they thought he was related to Isaac Hayes. That’s wrong.”