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Biden swings at Trump during White House Correspondents’ Dinner remarks as pro-Palestinian protesters rally outside

<i>Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

By Michael Williams, Kaanita Iyer, Kayla Tausche, Kevin Liptak and MJ Lee, CNN

Washington (CNN) — President Joe Biden took jabs at his predecessor and poked fun at his own age at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday as a sizable group of pro-Palestinian protesters outside the venue underscored the trouble his campaign faces amid criticism over his handling of the war in Gaza.

“Of course, the 2024 election’s in full swing and, yes, age is an issue: I’m a grown man running against a 6-year-old,” Biden said, referring to former President Donald Trump, whom he called “Sleepy Don.”

Speaking to a crowd of nearly 3,000 journalists, celebrities and politicians, Biden added, “Age is the only thing we have in common. My vice president actually endorses me.”

The president went on to draw a contrast between his reelection campaign, which has ramped up since his State of the Union address last month, and that of Trump, who has spent less time on the trail amid his criminal trial in New York related to an alleged hush money payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels.

“I’ve had a great stretch since the State of the Union, but Donald has had a few rough days lately,” Biden said. “You might call it ‘stormy’ weather.”

The evening’s other headliner, Colin Jost of “Saturday Night Live,” also addressed Trump’s legal troubles, beginning his set with, “Can we just acknowledge how refreshing it is to see a president of the United States at an event that doesn’t begin with a bailiff saying, ‘All rise’?”

Jost also mocked the age of both candidates: “I’m not saying both candidates are old, but you know Jimmy Carter is out there thinking, ‘I could maybe win this thing.’”

While Biden has delivered these speeches before, continuing a tradition dating to Calvin Coolidge, the stakes for what could be his last White House Correspondents’ Dinner were high. His approval rating is flagging, and voters and donors alike have raised questions about whether he has the mental acuity for the task. This year’s dinner also came as pro-Palestinian protests have erupted at college campuses across the country.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have followed Biden across the country for months, and Saturday was no different. As journalists and celebrities entered the Washington Hilton, protesters accused them of cosigning the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, shouting, “Shame on you!” while urging them to speak out against the killing of journalists in Gaza. Since Hamas’ October 7 attacks, at least 97 journalists — 92 of them Palestinian — have been killed in the region, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that has been tracking the death toll.

“It’s an absolute shame that people are attending this White House Correspondents’ Dinner when journalists in Gaza have called for the boycott of this. … Every single person in there is choosing to stay on the side of history that sides with profit over freedom,” said Mimi Ziad, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement, one of the organizers of the protest.

While Biden’s speech touched on serious notes, including stressing press freedom and the danger he said a second Trump presidency poses to democracy, the president did not mention the war in Gaza.

Inside the Biden team’s preparation

When Biden delivered remarks announcing he’d signed critical legislation sending $61 billion in aid to Ukraine and $26 billion in aid to Israel and Gaza, there was a new critic standing by: Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign and the onetime chief of content studio Dreamworks.

Katzenberg has often advised Biden on messaging to donors and voters. This week, he was on hand to see how Biden delivered scripted material – and to help the 81-year-old president deliver punchlines to the reporters who cover him.

“He’s the Hollywood guy,” an administration official told CNN. “He’s the entertainer.”

Administration officials said Katzenberg led daily strategy sessions with aides in the White House residence this week to tweak Biden’s comedy set drafted by longtime speechwriter Vinay Reddy.

The group reached consensus on the material a full day earlier than prior years, when top aides were forced to get dressed for the event in the West Wing because they were running so close to their deadline.

The White House also sought to ensure that Jost spread his barbs across the political spectrum and shared that concern with Kelly O’Donnell, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and senior White House correspondent for NBC News.

“Our dinner entertainment is most successful when it is aimed at both parties and at the national media,” O’Donnell told CNN. “That has been a repeated part of our discussions behind the scenes at every step of the planning this year. That is the WHCA’s intention every year.”

Flexing Biden’s sense of humor

Biden in recent weeks has been taking jabs at Trump, making fun of his hair, the dropping stock price of his social media company, and his Trump-branded Bibles to take some air out of the coverage the former president is getting during his criminal trial.

“I haven’t had a chance to watch the court proceedings because I’ve been campaigning,” Biden told supporters at a campaign reception in New York on Thursday.

While Biden has been using more and more comedy to go after Trump, his default rhetorical style isn’t usually to look for a punchline.

“He’s used the expression ‘Not a joke, folks’ more than he has told actual jokes,” one former aide said.

When it does come time to deliver a comedy speech, the task of writing it is typically a group affair, with jokes submitted from different parts of Biden’s orbit. Katzenberg, in particular, urged Biden to include more self-deprecating jokes about his age.

Staffers – even those beyond the speechwriting team – submit joke ideas, some of which make the speech and some of which get tossed.

Biden, when he was vice president, also sought outside help for comedy speeches he delivered at the yearly Gridiron dinner and in other lighthearted settings. Among those Biden has turned to was Jon Macks, a top writer on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” who has also written host material for dozens of Oscars ceremonies. One person involved in the process when Biden was vice president recalled a submission from Seth Meyers, then the head writer on “Saturday Night Live.”

Political ramifications of previous dinners

Though the dinners are meant to be lighthearted affairs, Biden has shifted between being funny and serious during previous speeches, underscoring the wide-ranging political ramifications the event can have.

The president took a more serious tone Saturday evening as he called for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich from Russian detention.

“Putin should release Evan,” Biden said. “We are doing everything we can.”

When Trump attended the 2011 dinner as a guest, President Barack Obama mocked the then-reality TV star, poking fun at the baseless and false “birther” conspiracy theory that Trump had been promoting as well as his time on “The Apprentice.”

“You didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey,” Obama said, joking about Trump’s experience with difficult situations. “And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.”

Obama said that line having greenlighted the raid that would lead to the death of Osama bin Laden just before attending the dinner. Many have speculated that Obama’s treatment of Trump at the 2011 dinner inspired the latter to run for president. During his time in office, Trump did not attend the dinner.

Asked before the weekend whether Biden was looking forward to or dreading the dinner, one senior adviser insisted to CNN that the president enjoys the event because he does like spending time with reporters.

But the adviser quickly added: “I think he wouldn’t ever admit it.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

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