Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
UPDATE: At today's press briefing, new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci announced that Sarah Huckabee Sanders will replace Sean Spicer as press secretary. Sanders has a long record of lying and attacking the press on President Donald Trump's behalf, and she will doubtlessly continue Spicer's shameful record.
Sean Spicer is on his way out, The New York Times reports, resigning from his post at the end of August to protest President Donald Trump’s plan to make financier Anthony Scaramucci his new communications director. But the former White House press secretary will not be forgotten. A respected Republican political operative who served as communications director for the Republican National Committee, Spicer provided establishment polish to the president’s war on the media, serving as the administration’s heavy until Trump grew tired of his performance. As much as any other member of the president’s team, Spicer is responsible for the dissolution of political norms that Trump’s administration has effected as it tries to delegitimize its critics in order to maintain power.
Spicer turned the daily press briefings from a give-and-take between reporters and a White House seeking to inform the public into a grueling battleground where journalists were constantly denigrated for diverting from the party line. When he wasn’t lashing out at mainstream reporters, he was trying to stack the deck with more favorable questions by elevating representatives from conservative outlets -- particularly through the innovation of “Skype seats.” The length of the briefings -- which were short to begin with -- had plummeted in recent months, with the press office often demanding that they be kept off-camera.
Spicer’s relationship with the press as press secretary began in crisis. On the evening after Trump’s inauguration, he convened the press corps. What followed was a shocking and unprecedented scolding, as Spicer lashed out at the press for its supposed “shameful and wrong” coverage of the inaugural crowd. Spicer, lying, claimed before images of the crowd that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period -- both in person and around the globe.” Setting the tone for future encounters, Spicer said that he intended to “hold the press accountable” for reporting facts that the administration denied, and then he left the briefing room without taking questions, to the shock and dismay of the journalism community.
Two days later, a more subdued Spicer appeared for his first official White House press briefing. Spicer denied that he had lied about the inaugural crowd, saying that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts,” while standing by his comments. Spicer told the same lies he had before, but because he did so in a calmer fashion, he received plaudits from reporters who no doubt hoped that the trend would improve.
But lies alone cannot sustain an administration like this. In order to preserve the backing of its supporters, the White House would need to delegitimize any source of information that provides unfavorable facts about the administration. That strategy required regular attacks on the press from the White House briefing podium. Spicer filled that role with vigor. He attacked outlets and demeaned reporters who produced reporting damaging to the administration on a regular basis. He compared reporters to children, called one an “idiot,” and demanded another stop shaking her head in the briefing room.
Spicer consistently harangued the media for its “negative” narrative and its “fake news” reports. When other members of the administration criticized the press as the “opposition party” or even the “enemy of the American people,” Spicer had no apparent problem standing by them. Nor did he see an issue with helping along the president’s attacks on other government entities.
Spicer’s overzealous willingness to do anything and everything to defend the president notably caused an international incident back in March. In order to try to back up Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 presidential campaign, Spicer read a series of articles from the podium. This included a Fox analyst’s anonymously sourced claim that a British intelligence service spied on Trump on Obama’s behalf. The intelligence service denied the claim, Fox repudiated the reporting, and the administration was forced to discuss the incident with the British government. When Spicer was asked about the incident the following week, he shut down the briefing.
Spicer was performing for an audience of one -- Trump, who regularly watched the press briefings on TV and even reportedly would send notes on his performance to the podium -- and he was willing to do anything to make the president happy. Spicer’s loyalty to the administration and his complete lack of standards or honesty in his role did little to help him.
In May, the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey led to a communications disaster that ended with the president saying that his own spokespeople could not be trusted to convey the facts and suggesting that the administration might cancel all press briefings. Angry with his handling of the story, the president reportedly considered firing Spicer. In the months since, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, has often taken Spicer’s place at the podium, and rumors constantly swirled about possible replacements.
On Tuesday, Spicer conducted his final briefing before news of his resignation broke -- it was his first briefing in three weeks. According to The Washington Post, his performance was “clueless,” and he seemed “out of the loop… often punting on basic questions.”
The White House press corps should not expect things to improve with Spicer gone. Sanders has shown the same willingness to lash out at journalists, has demonstrated little interest in answering their questions or providing the slightest bit of information, has overseen the continuing de-emphasis of the briefings, and has eagerly worked with pro-Trump media outlets to undermine the rest of the press. Any political operative who comes from outside the administration to replace Spicer will know exactly what he or she is getting into and what is expected of the role, including continued attacks on the free press.
Spicer will be gone, but the show will go on.