Back in February, before Passover and the “Holocaust centers,” less than three weeks after the inauguration, the press was already reporting that the president could be looking for a new spokesman.
“A longtime Republican operative, Sean Spicer is a close ally of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus,” CNN’s Jim Acosta observed before lining up an anonymous source to confirm to him that “Trump is upset with Priebus over the selection of Spicer for arguably the administration’s most visible position, next to the president.”
By that time, we’d already gotten the travel “not ban” ban and Melissa McCarthy’s withering impersonation of “Spicey.” Impromptu cellphone searches of Spicer’s staff came later that month. Despite all this, Sean Spicer is still there, still the president’s spokesman, still taking the podium. What gives?
Acosta did have it right that Spicer is an ally of Priebus. In fact, while Spicer may be new to the television audience, when he came in he was already familiar to the press, having become the chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee back in 2011. Most reporters who worked with him will tell you it’s not that hard to get him on the phone, or to get him to answer questions. The only problem was he was sure to call and yell about the piece afterward.
That, in capsule, decodes Spicer’s resilience as a press spokesman: In a White House that has made beating up the fourth estate official policy, Spicer, along with a number of other press officers and anonymous officials, gives reporters what they need (the getting on the phone part) while giving his bosses what they want (the yelling part).
Last week offered less headline-grabbing but more illustrative moments than just the Holocaust mess. It saw several stunning reversals of key policy positions Trump had advanced during his campaign. What might have been a short, newsless week was anything but for Spicer, even if the whole Assad-Hitler thing had never happened.
After bashing NATO on the campaign trail and giving agita to European allies, Trump changed his tune. “I said it was obsolete,” he said during a visit from NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. “It’s no longer obsolete.”
Here’s how that played out in the press room: “I think, respectfully, I think you can look at what you’re referring to as a shift in a lot of ways,” Spicer told the press corps. “And by that I mean I saw a couple instances with respect to NATO being one of those shifts, and if you look at what’s happened, it’s those entities or individuals in some cases or issues evolving toward the president’s position.”
Writing about Spicer’s rhetorical gymnastics in the Atlantic, David A. Graham asks what the role of a presidential spokesman could possibly be: It is, he offers, “surely to defend whatever the president says his policy is right now. If even his own spokesman can’t understand and explain that, how is anyone else to do so?”
The answer is: Nobody can. But how many people can stand at a podium and tell the world that our president’s positions never change — it’s the rest of the world that changes?
The fact is, the White House press briefing is important not so much for whatever new information might emerge from it. Serious reporters save their questions for the seemingly endless parade of off-the-record interviews White House insiders are giving about everything from the president’s TV-watching habits to deep policy divides to infighting among rival camps in the West Wing. The briefing is more like a formal record of what the administration’s official line is on any given major topic at any given moment.
So what happens when there is no official position? Or the official position is self-contradictory? You get a spokesman unsuccessfully trying to navigate to the end of a briefing with whatever self-respect he can muster, and answers bizarre enough that they liberate the press corps from having to take them seriously.
The president switches his position overnight, Spicer gives his non-explanation. Reporters can write their dispatches on the NATO meeting and Trump’s “evolution” (i.e., flip-flop) without worrying that they need to seriously account for Spicer’s comments. McCarthy then makes fun of it all on Saturday Night Live.
Even the president gets what he requires, and why should he want more? A president who won with a campaign that was impervious to facts and dismissive of expert knowledge doesn’t really need a spokesman who will correct the image of a White House that runs on the same principles. No, he needs a spokesman who will amplify the blustering confidence of the president. Which Spicer does, at great cost to his own dignity.
It almost seems like we get each other now, the press and Spicer. In a weird kind of way, it’s working just fine.
By the time McCarthy returned on Saturday, it was almost difficult not to feel bad for the guy.
“Y’all got your wish this week, didn’t you, huh? Spicey finally made a mistake,” McCarthy’s Spicer, “sweating my Easter eggs off” in a giant bunny suit, tells the briefing room. After stumbling through the rest of the thing, bathed in that characteristic flop sweat, he makes his way back to the topic of the “Holocaust centers” and that famous dictator he’d awkwardly compared to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
“I am sensitive to the fact that they were sent there on trains, but hey, at least they didn’t have to fly United, am I right?”
Instantly he looks down, shaking his head and muttering, almost to himself, “Hunh, dang. That one jumped — that one just jumped right out of me.”