Chants Of ‘sHame On You’ Greet Guests At White House Correspondents’ Dinner Shadowed By War In Gaza

Demonstrators hold a sign while press vest lay on the ground covered in red paint during a pro-Palestinian protest over the Israel-Hamas war at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, Saturday April 27, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
Demonstrators hold a sign while press vest lay on the ground covered in red paint during a pro-Palestinian protest over the Israel-Hamas war at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, Saturday April 27, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
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The war in Gaza spurred large protests outside a glitzy roast with President Joe Biden, journalists, politicians and celebrities Saturday but went all but unmentioned by participants inside, with Biden instead using the annual White House correspondents’ dinner to make both jokes and grim warnings about Republican rival Donald Trump’s fight to reclaim the U.S. presidency.

An evening normally devoted to presidents, journalists and comedians taking outrageous pokes at political scandals and each other often seemed this year to illustrate the difficulty of putting aside the coming presidential election and the troubles in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Biden opened his roast with a direct but joking focus on Trump, calling him “sleepy Don,” in reference to a nickname Trump had given the president previously.

Despite being similar in age, Biden said, the two presidential hopefuls have little else in common. “My vice president actually endorses me,” Biden said. Former Trump Vice President Mike Pence has refused to endorse Trump’s reelection bid.

But the president quickly segued to a grim speech about what he believes is at stake this election, saying that another Trump administration would be even more harmful to America than his first term.

“We have to take this serious — eight years ago we could have written it off as ‘Trump talk’ but not after January 6,” Biden told the audience, referring to the supporters of Trump who stormed the Capitol after Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 election.

Trump did not attend Saturday's dinner and never attended the annual banquet as president. In 2011, he sat in the audience, and glowered through a roasting by then-President Barack Obama of Trump's reality-television celebrity status. Obama's sarcasm then was so scalding that many political watchers linked it to Trump's subsequent decision to run for president in 2016.

Biden’s speech, which lasted around 10 minutes, made no mention of the ongoing war or the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

One of the few mentions came from Kelly O’Donnell, president of the correspondents’ association, who briefly noted some 100 journalists killed in Israel's 6-month-old war against Hamas in Gaza. In an evening dedicated in large part to journalism, O’Donnell cited journalists who have been detained across the world, including Americans Evan Gershkovich in Russia and Austin Tice, who is believed to be held in Syria. Families of both men were in attendance as they have been at previous dinners.

To get inside Saturday's dinner, some guests had to hurry through hundreds of protesters outraged over the mounting humanitarian disaster for Palestinian civilians in Gaza. They condemned Biden for his support of Israel's military campaign and Western news outlets for what they said was undercoverage and misrepresentation of the conflict.

“Shame on you!” protesters draped in the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh cloth shouted, running after men in tuxedos and suits and women in long dresses holding clutch purses as guests hurried inside for the dinner.

“Western media we see you, and all the horrors that you hide,” crowds chanted at one point.

Other protesters lay sprawled motionless on the pavement, next to mock-ups of flak vests with “press” insignia.

Ralliers cried “Free, free Palestine." They cheered when at one point someone inside the Washington Hilton — where the dinner has been held for decades — unfurled a Palestinian flag from a top-floor hotel window.

Criticism of the Biden administration's support for Israel's military offensive in Gaza has spread through American college campuses, with students pitching encampments and withstanding police sweeps in an effort to force their universities to divest from Israel. Counterprotests back Israel's offensive and complain of antisemitism.

Biden’s motorcade Saturday took an alternate route from the White House to the Washington Hilton than in previous years, largely avoiding the crowds of demonstrators.

Saturday's event drew nearly 3,000 people. Celebrities included Academy Award winner Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Hamm and Chris Pine.

Both the president and comedian Colin Jost, who spoke after Biden, made jabs at the age of both the candidates for president. “I’m not saying both candidates are old. But you know Jimmy Carter is out there thinking, ‘maybe I can win this thing,’” Jost said. “He’s only 99.”

Law enforcement, including the Secret Service, instituted extra street closures and other measures to ensure what Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said would be the “highest levels of safety and security for attendees.”

Protest organizers said they aimed to bring attention to the high numbers of Palestinian and other Arab journalists killed by Israel's military since the war began in October.

More than two dozen journalists in Gaza wrote a letter last week calling on their colleagues in Washington to boycott the dinner altogether.

“The toll exacted on us for merely fulfilling our journalistic duties is staggering," the letter stated. “We are subjected to detentions, interrogations, and torture by the Israeli military, all for the ‘crime’ of journalistic integrity.”

One organizer complained that the White House Correspondents' Association — which represents the hundreds of journalists who cover the president — largely has been silent since the first weeks of the war about the killings of Palestinian journalists. WHCA did not respond to a request for comment.

According to a preliminary investigation released Friday by the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 100 journalists have been killed covering the war in Gaza. Israel has defended its actions, saying it has been targeting militants.

“Since the Israel-Gaza war began, journalists have been paying the highest price — their lives — to defend our right to the truth. Each time a journalist dies or is injured, we lose a fragment of that truth,” CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna said in a statement.

Sandra Tamari, executive director of Adalah Justice Project, a U.S.-based Palestinian advocacy group that helped organize the letter from journalists in Gaza, said “it is shameful for the media to dine and laugh with President Biden while he enables the Israeli devastation and starvation of Palestinians in Gaza."

In addition, Adalah Justice Project started an email campaign targeting 12 media executives at various news outlets — including The Associated Press — expected to attend the dinner who previously signed onto a letter calling for the protection of journalists in Gaza.

“How can you still go when your colleagues in Gaza asked you not to?" a demonstrator asked guests heading in. "You are complicit.”

___ Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo, Aamer Madhani, Fatima Hussein and Tom Strong contributed to this report.