WASHINGTON – The panna cotta had been served and the First Amendment duly celebrated by the time comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage Saturday at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
What followed was a roast that took unflinching aim at some of the room's notables — and quickly opened a divide, largely but not entirely along partisan lines, over the limits of comedy and comity under a president who rarely hesitates to attack the press.
Wolf described Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, as "an Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women" and took a shot at her "smokey eye" makeup, saying that it was made from the ashes of "burnt facts." She called Ivanka Trump "as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons." She labeled Kellyanne Conway, the president's counselor, an inveterate liar, and asked: "If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?"
"I'm not suggesting she get hurt, just stuck," Wolf added puckishly, as an icy silence — and a few scattered chortles — fell over the black-tie crowd. Conway sat expressionless. Sanders, granted a seat of honor on the dais, limited her reaction to an arched eyebrow and pursed lips.
But feedback from the political left and right quickly went to extremes.
"It was personally offensive," Brian Kilmeade, a co-host of "Fox & Friends," said minutes after Wolf ended her set.
"To me, that was an attack to impress Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert," he added, previewing a line of criticism that would be dominant on Fox News by Sunday morning. "Congratulations, when the three of you go out to dinner, I'm sure you'll be laughing a lot. But in terms of the people here and the people at home — totally offensive, horrible choice. In fact, it's the reason why the president didn't want to go."
Critics of President Donald Trump — who is no stranger to lobbing insult-comic punch lines at his opponents and is the first president to outright skip the correspondents' gala since Jimmy Carter — wondered what the fuss was about.
"Before we criticize Michelle Wolf, let's remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things that any president in history has ever done," said Howard Fineman, a left-leaning analyst at NBC and MSNBC. "Just have a little perspective."
By Sunday morning, Wolf, a contributor to "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" whose Netflix talk show starts in May, had seemingly scandalized Washington's intersecting political and media tribes. Trump weighed in on Twitter, writing, "Everyone is talking about the fact that the White House Correspondents Dinner was a very big, boring bust."
In one Twitter exchange, Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary — who recently turned up at Madame Tussauds to promote a wax statue of Melania Trump — described the dinner as "a disgrace," netting around 4,000 retweets.
"Thank you!" Wolf replied. By Sunday morning, her response had about 13,000 retweets.
Prominent Washington journalists, meanwhile, took pains to defend Sanders — earning their own opprobrium from some liberals who asked why reporters were sticking up for an administration that routinely impugns their work.
NBC News' Andrea Mitchell tweeted that an "apology is owed" to Sanders. Her network colleague Mika Brzezinski wrote that "watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable."
Going back to Colbert's blistering monologue in 2006 — delivered as President George W. Bush sat unsmiling a few feet away — the comic portion of the correspondents' dinner has courted controversy. Roast-style humor is an odd fit for protocol-oriented Washington, and some comedians praised Wolf for discomfiting the audience of elite journalists and administration officials.
"Journalism is all about the 1st amendment. If you don't see the import of what @michelleisawolf did tonight then you don't get it," tweeted Kathy Griffin, the comedian whose own brush with crude presidential humor led to her losing a CNN job.
The doyens of Washington did not agree. Mike Allen, a prime voice of the city's establishment, declared in his newsletter Sunday: "Media hands Trump embarrassing win."
There were even whispers about a revolt against the Correspondents' Association by news organizations displeased by the night's events. The New York Times stopped attending the dinner in 2008.