White House press secretary Sean Spicer started the week dogged by rumors that he was about to be demoted or fired. He ended it almost speechless, incapable or unwilling to answer even the most basic questions about President Donald Trump and the administration’s policies.
Take Spicer’s response in Friday’s briefing as to whether or not Trump believes, as he tweeted in 2012, that climate change is a hoax created to aid China and hobble US manufacturing.
“I have not had an opportunity to have that discussion,” Spicer said, despite the fact that he was asked the same question earlier in the week and, in the intervening time, Trump had formalized his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords – making the US one of only three countries worldwide to do so.
Asked later in the briefing whether he would commit to asking Trump whether he still believed climate change is a hoax, Spicer offered only: “If I can, I will.” Which in political-speak is the equivalent of saying: “Absolutely not.”
When Spicer was asked to comment on the ongoing Russia probe, he said this: “I cannot, and as I’ve mentioned the other day that we’re focused on the President’s agenda and going forward all questions on these matters will be referred to outside counsel Marc Kasowitz.” Asked several other questions tied to the Russia investigations, Spicer repeated, verbatim – with glances down at the sheet of paper on the podium where it was written – the line about all matters being referred to Trump’s personal lawyer.
What’s clear from this week – which included two on-camera briefings (Tuesday and Friday) as well as one off-camera briefing (Wednesday) – is that Spicer believes the best way to keep his job is to do as little of it as possible.
Throughout the week, he was terse, serious and brief – in both his answers and the numbers of questions he was willing to take. When he did “answer” questions it was with rote talking points that sought to paint an entirely alternate political reality from the one that most Americans are living in.
On Monday, for example, Spicer spent 11 minutes delivering a paean to Trump’s foreign trip – the word “historic” was used repeatedly – and then dismissed legitimate questions about Russia’s attempts to influence the election as “fake news.”
All White House press secretaries walk a very fine line between keeping their credibility with the press corps and keeping their boss happy. Those two tasks rarely line up – which is what makes the job so incredibly challenging.
But, Spicer – as evidenced by his performances this week – seems to have given up any attempt to straddle that fine line. He has bowed to the reality of this White House: There is really only one audience member who counts. And his name is Donald John Trump.
Just as Trump’s election and first 133 days in office are unlike anything we have ever seen before, so, too, is the job Spicer is doing as press secretary. Never before have we seen a press secretary so unwilling to, well, deal with the press.
What’s remarkable in this up-is-down White House is that Spicer almost certainly helped himself in the eyes of Trump this week. He pushed back hard against the media’s narrative on Russia, dropped the term “fake news” liberally and ended the press briefings on his own time and terms. To Trump, that is a command performance that will almost certainly keep him in his job.
Which, it appears, is what Spicer cares most about these days.