Despite presidential snub, Trump jokes front and centre at White House press dinners

Without U.S. President Donald Trump, the usually celebrity-filled soiree hosted by the White House Correspondents' Association took a more sober turn, but headline comedian Hasan Minhaj still brought the humour. Late night television show host Samantha Bee also hosted a competing event.

'Welcome to the series finale of the White House correspondents' Dinner,' joked Hasan Minhaj

Daily Show comic Hasan Minhaj, left, was the headline comedian at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday, while late night television show host Samantha Bee hosted a competing event. (Evan Agostini, Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Without U.S. President Donald Trump, who scheduled a rally instead to mark his 100th day in office, the usually celebrity-filled soiree hosted by the White House Correspondents' Association took a more sober turn, even as it pulled in top journalists and Washington insiders.

Instead of the typical roasts — presidents of both parties have delivered their own zingers for years — the event returned to its traditional roots of recognizing reporters' work and handing out student scholarships as famed journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein presented awards.

However, headline comedian Hasan Minhaj still brought the humour.

'Welcome to the series finale'

Daily Show correspondent takes on Trump's VP, daughter 2:20

"Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents' Dinner," Minhaj, who plays a correspondent on Comedy Central's The Daily Show program, told the crowd

He also joked about Trump, despite organizers' wishes, saying he did so to honour U.S. constitutional protection of free speech: "Only in America can a first-generation, Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president."

'He can't take a joke'

Daily Show correspondent cracks some jokes about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin 0:27

Minhaj even addressed Trump's absence.

"We've got to address the elephant that's not in the room," he said. "The leader of our country is not here. And that's because he lives in Moscow. It's a very long flight. As for the other guy, I think he's in Pennsylvania because he can't take a joke."

In a video message, actor Alec Baldwin, who has raised Trump's ire playing him on NBC's Saturday Night Live program also encouraged attendees.

Few other celebrities graced the red carpet, although some well-known Washingtonians, such as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Republican congressman Darrell Issa of California, appeared.

The stars of the night were Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who recounted what they learned about journalism from their reporting for The Washington Post that helped lead to President Richard Nixon's resignation more than 40 years ago.

'Not fake news'

White House Correspondents' Association president Jeff Mason counters Trump's media claims 1:25

"Like politicians and presidents sometimes, perhaps too frequently, we make mistakes and go too far," Woodward said. "When that happens we should own up to it. But the effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. Mr. President, the media is not 'fake news."'

'How do you like me now?' 

Trump attended in 2011, when then-President Barack Obama made jokes at the expense of the New York real estate developer and reality television show host. In an interview with Reuters this week, Trump said he decided against attending as president because he felt he had been treated unfairly by the media, adding: "I would come next year, absolutely."

In Pennsylvania, Trump told supporters the media dinner would be boring but was noncommittal on whether he would go in 2018 or hold another rally.

"A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation's capital right now," Trump said. He added: "And I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington's swamp, spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people, right?"

Trump became the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to skip the event — and Reagan was recovering from an assassination attempt.

Samantha Bee's taped show, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to American news organizations, featured actor Will Ferrell and other guests roasting Trump and his allies. (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)

Late night television show host Samantha Bee also hosted a competing event — Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner — that she said would honour journalists rather than skewer Trump.

But, of course, she did both.

George W. Bush appearance 

Bee's taped show, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to American news organizations, featured actor Will Ferrell and other guests roasting Trump and his allies.

Ferrell brought back his George W. Bush impression. "How do you like me now?" he joked. 

Bee's show humorously assailed topics like "alternative facts," a remark once made by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway that drew heavy criticism. It also included segments like "Fox News In Memoriam," and tackled frustration with CNN.

With files from The Associated Press