Sean Spicer isn't finished
Updated 9:38 AM ET, Wed February 15, 2017
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Washington (CNN)Sean Spicer has barely moved into his office.
Three weeks after the inauguration, the only things adorning the White House press secretary's shelves are a framed picture of himself at the podium, a book on Naval Special Warfare (he's in the Reserve), and a Super Soaker commemorating the infamous "Saturday Night Live" skit in which he, played by an enraged Melissa McCarthy, berated reporters while dousing them with soapy water.
Just beyond these walls, in the briefing room and the restaurants and hotel bars frequented by the town's journalists and politicos, conclusions about Spicer's future have already been drawn. The prevailing wisdom is that the combative press secretary is not long for his office, destined to be thrown out in a matter of months or perhaps weeks for failing at what everyone describes as the hardest job in Washington: defending, and pleasing, President Donald J. Trump.
The evidence: Spicer's boss is the most image-conscious president in modern history, obsessed with his reputation and thus with his press secretary's performance. He's also been known to cast out anyone who makes him look bad. Lately, anonymous sources have been telling the press that Trump is disappointed in Spicer, that Trump was embarrassed by the McCarthy skit, even that the White House is already interviewing for a new press secretary (a report that was quickly knocked down).
To a press corps frustrated with Spicer's aggressive attacks on reporters and tenuous relationship with the facts, the press secretary's imminent demise is a compelling narrative. But the most senior members of Trump's staff say the rumors are wrong.
"It's totally and completely false," Steve Bannon, the president's chief strategist, told me during a recent interview in the Roosevelt Room. "The President has full and total confidence in Sean."
Reince Priebus, Trump's chief of staff, told me the same: "The President has full confidence in Sean," he said. "What he thinks is that this is a media narrative that's B.S., that's what he thinks."
So where is the narrative coming from? Spicer declined to comment on the record for this article, but Bannon and Priebus dismissed the leaks about his fate as scuttlebutt from lower level staff. Or maybe "the media, the opposition party" was just making it up, Bannon said.
Many people sympathetic to Spicer in and out of the White House believe otherwise. Five of these sources think the person behind the leaks is Kellyanne Conway, Trump's ever-visible White House counselor. Though they offer no hard evidence, they say Conway is trying to offload blame for administration setbacks on Spicer to prove she is the more effective public advocate and earn a lasting place in the President's inner circle.
"She's clearly guiding a press narrative that he's not up for the job, and that they're reviewing other candidates," one GOP strategist said. "It's becoming abundantly clear that Kellyanne is making Sean's job impossible."
Publicly, the two appear to be locked in a Cold War, issuing not-so-indirect slights at one another across the airwaves. When Spicer was asked last week about the ethics of Conway promoting Ivanka Trump's clothing line from the White House briefing room, his response was curt: "She's been counseled."
The following day, after the President showed support for Conway, she tweeted that Trump "likes 'counselor' more than 'counseled.'"
"That was the first open shot," one source close to Spicer said.
The two occasionally contradict one another as well. Following the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Conway did a round of morning interviews Tuesday where she said Flynn had offered to resign. Hours later, Spicer said Trump had asked Flynn for his resignation.
Conway categorically denied that she was behind any leaks about Spicer: "Absolutely not," she told me. "It's absolutely false. Sean has my full support, but most importantly, he has the President's full support. We work as a team."
She also said she was offered the press secretary role "within an hour of the President winning" and turned it down, so why would she try to undermine him now?
"Sean's doing a great job with impossible odds," Conway said. "He's got a tenacity and focus that's going to serve him well long term."
Conway also told me she planned to step back from the spotlight. "I'm trying to reduce my television exposure," she said.
White House press secretaries have always been subject to immense pressure. But between the scrutiny of his boss, the growing frustrations of the press corps and the backstabbing by his own colleagues, whoever that may be, it's easy to see why nearly everyone in Washington thinks Spicer is about to get axed.
And yet Spicer is a fighter. He fought his way into Trump's favor when colleagues advised against it and fought to become press secretary when Trump wasn't sure he was the right pick. (The President considered both Conway and conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.) Spicer now fights for Trump on camera every day, even when the President's positions are incongruent or, to many, indefensible.
So long as Spicer has Trump's support, the rest is noise. The media and indeed much of the American public may be ready to write him into history as the most disreputable and ineffective press secretary of the modern era. But history goes through many drafts before it hits the shelves. Those who know Spicer and his relationship with the President say it would be a mistake to count him out so soon.
"Sean's going to be there for a while," Brendan Buck, the counselor and chief communications adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan, told me. "If you know anything about him, he's a fighter. He's scrappy and he sticks things out. To suggest he's just going to fade away -- I just don't see it."
"One year from now, Sean will be the most battle-tested press secretary in the history of the White House," said Ron Bonjean, the veteran Republican strategist and longtime friend of Spicer. "With skin as thick as a rhinoceros."
'Explain what the president is thinking'
The White House press secretary is often said to have two bosses: the president and the press. That has never really been the case. As the venerable New York Times columnist William Safire once wrote, "the presidential press secretary is not the press's press secretary or journalism's punching bag, but is the president's press secretary."
"The press secretary's job is to explain what the president is thinking and why he's thinking it," Ari Fleischer, the first White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, told me. "For Sean, it doesn't matter if the press likes him or not."
Still, previous administrations have believed the most effective way to advance their agenda was by maintaining at least the veneer of an open and respectful relationship with the press corps -- by being "adversarial without being hostile," as Safire put it.
At the Trump White House, hostility toward the media is the agenda. Trump and many of his top officials believe reporters are so deaf to reality and so unfair to them that the only appropriate response is open warfare. "The opposition party is completely focused on trying to destroy Trump and his administration," Bannon told me. "It's not going to happen."
When asked if he had any interest in repairing the relationship, Bannon replied: "I could care less."
This anti-media posture makes Spicer's job all the more difficult, because -- hard as this may be to believe -- he actually does care about the relationship, several journalists and sources close to him said. Yes, he relishes a good bout with reporters, but the militant propagandism he channels in the briefing room feels like a performance for the audience-of-one watching him almost daily from the Oval Office.
"The briefing is a TV show, and everybody knows it's been a TV show for decades," said Fleischer. "So much of what the press is saying about Sean comes from the fact that they don't like Donald Trump, and how hostile the relationship has become... Donald Trump has played a role in this, and that makes it harder for Sean."
Sitting in his own office and bantering with reporters, or even at the beginning of the briefings -- before he's lost the room -- Spicer is all calm and wry wit.
That is the Sean Spicer the Washington political-media establishment knows. The playfully pugilistic flack who has worked for the House Budget Committee and the House Republican Conference and the US Trade Representative; the sarcastic Irish-Catholic who pops up at D.C. social events, teasing colleagues and reporters, stipulating that everything is "off the record" before telling everyone something a little closer to the honest truth; the Navy reservist who wears a rainbow bracelet from his kids that says "Dad" and can be found manning the ice luge at Bonjean's annual Christmas party.
"I have said this before and will say it again: As combative as Sean is in public, he has (mostly) been helpful, funny in private," Glenn Thrush, the New York Times White House correspondent who has been featured in each of McCarthy's "SNL" skits, tweeted recently.
That is why Spicer's first briefing, on the Saturday after the inauguration, was so hard to stomach. Journalists who had known him for years and shared drinks and dinners and late-night phone calls didn't recognize the volatile penal officer who walked into the briefing room brandishing erroneous statistics in the service of false claims. "That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period," he shouted. "Both in person and around the globe."
Alas, it was not true.
Historically, at least, White House press secretaries are only as effective as they are credible. The late Tony Snow, who served under President George W. Bush, once said, "If it got to the point where I thought it would cost me my credibility, I would have no choice but to walk away."
Spicer's critics, including a few of his predecessors, believe he sacrificed his credibility on day one. "He had the choice to keep his job or his integrity, and it looks like he chose his job," one former Democratic White House press secretary who asked not to be identified for professional reasons told me.
Spicer has regrets about that day, sources close to him said. He knows he shouldn't have trusted the statistics he was given, and he knows he should have taken questions from the press. But does he feel like his credibility is in question? Absolutely not, they said.
Since then, Spicer has grown cooler under pressure. He was measured and unfazed Tuesday during one of his most highly anticipated briefings yet following Flynn's resignation.
Still, journalists remain frustrated with his behavior in the briefings. He is careless with facts (as well as word pronunciation), consistently refuses to answer follow-up questions and doesn't call on reporters who he feels have done something out of turn.
"I've never seen a White House press secretary hostile to the notion of a follow-up question. That's the whole nature of that exercise," said one longtime White House correspondent who requested anonymity to protect his professional relationship with Spicer.
"The sloppiness, the way he's burning up good will, the bullying and not being responsive," the reporter continued. "Sean is a good guy. Going into this job he had a very good reputation. It's a head scratcher."
Hitching himself to Trump
Before hitching himself to Trump, Spicer spent his entire career -- more than two-and-a-half decades -- working for the Republican establishment. After graduating from Connecticut College in 1993, he went to work for a laundry list of GOP candidates and congressmen before joining the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2000 and kickstarting his career as a GOP communications guy. His friends in Washington were other GOP comms guys, as well as a few reporters. They worked and partied and took trips together to Dewey Beach, Delaware. In 2011, Spicer became communications director for the Republican National Committee, elevating him to a cable news advocate for Republicans against Obama.
In other words, Spicer was a politico and a party loyalist, a stalwart Republican who liked politics and Washington and winning arguments. He valued patriotism and service -- he's been in the US Navy Reserve for nearly two decades. But outside of fighting for the GOP, there was no grand ideology.
"His love of country drives him," Priebus told me. "His sense of duty drives him. His feeling of obligation to his country, to do the right thing and promote policies that will make the country better."
Last summer, when Trump secured the Republican nomination, most GOP operatives stood on the sidelines or ran in the opposite direction, wary of tying themselves to a highly controversial and improbable campaign. As the RNC's chief strategist and spokesperson, Spicer did not have the luxury of a clean exit -- whether he wanted it or not. It fell to him and Priebus, then the RNC chair, to provide the unconventional campaign with institutional know-how.
But Spicer went further: In September, he moved to Trump Tower to work for the campaign -- a highly unusual move for an RNC official of his rank. He also blitzed the airwaves, constantly appearing on cable news to defend the nominee and attack the opposition. Some of his friends worried for him -- worried that he was jettisoning his career and, in the case of some who opposed Trump, his integrity.
Meanwhile, Trump came to value Spicer's work ethic. The two began to develop a rapport, sources with knowledge of their relationship said. In December, when Spicer's father died, the President-elect was one of the first people to call him. The very next day, Spicer was back in the office. "There's a loyalty there," one source said.
As any political communications operative will tell you, there is no higher calling than White House press secretary. If any other Republican -- Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio -- had won, Spicer almost certainly would not have been offered the job. Those campaigns had their own people in place, just as Bush had Fleischer and Obama had Robert Gibbs. With Trump, there was a vacuum. Spicer fought for it. More than six weeks after winning the election, Trump finally offered him the job.
In interviews following his appointment, Spicer would often well up when asked how it felt to be offered the position. "It's an honor," the Barrington, Rhode Island, native told WPRI in Providence. "You grow up here in Rhode Island and you see people on TV and you wonder, how does that person get that job? Now I'm going to have the honor of having that position, and it really is a humbling thing -- to know that you're going to be the spokesperson for the country."
Chip on his shoulder
Like every Trump loyalist, Spicer wears a chip on his shoulder. It's the chip that comes from feeling like you are constantly being treated unfairly by the very same people who wrongly predicted that you'd never make it to where you are in the first place.
"The default narrative is always negative, and it's demoralizing," Spicer said at his first official briefing. He has also complained of a pervasive double standard, wherein he is chastised for every mistake he makes while reporters are free to make mistakes with minimal responsibility. He and others in the White House spent days fuming about an incorrect pool report by Time Magazine's Zeke Miller that said the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office on Inauguration Day. Miller quickly apologized for the error, but for the White House it simply confirmed their arguments about media bias.
This sense of injustice overflows from the Trump White House. "The media was ashamed and humiliated" on November 8, Bannon said, and yet they continue to make up "fake news." If media organizations were truly capitalist, he said, they would fire every editor and reporter who failed to anticipate Trump's victory.
Bannon called Spicer "a hero" for having "the gentlemanly comportment that he has to go out and answer questions every day" from "hostile" reporters.
At some point, Spicer will leave the White House, because at some point everyone does. Departing press secretaries almost always leave the office in a stronger position than when they came in, leveraging their high profile and unparalleled experience to obtain lucrative jobs at places like Amazon, McDonald's or Fox News. One notable exception to the rule is Scott McClellan, who was accused of sacrificing his credibility while defending the first three years of President George W. Bush's Iraq War. He now serves as the Vice President for Communications at Seattle University.
Like so much of his life now, Spicer's fate depends on the whims of his boss. Those who are bearish on Trump already see the ghost of McClellan hanging over the current press secretary. "There's a real danger for him that he's going to leave here damaged, with lesser stature than when he came in," said one longtime White House correspondent who requested anonymity to avoid hurting his relationship with Spicer.
Others counter that, no matter what happens, 25 years of relationships in Washington can't be erased by a few chaotic years in the Trump White House. And anyway, he'll have one hell of a book to write.
For now, Spicer perseveres, tuning out the noise and working around the clock to please the one person whose opinion of his performance actually matters.
"White House press secretary is the best miserable job anyone can have," Fleischer explained. "You don't take the job and you don't earn the job unless you love the pressure and you love the front page and making what's going to be on it."
"What makes press secretaries thrive," he said, "is the enjoyment of that pressure."