When the White House press corps convenes today for press secretary Sean Spicer’s daily briefing, the journalists in the room will be joined via Skype by Bryan Crabtree, an Atlanta-based right-wing talk radio host who wrote last year that Donald Trump is “the future of this country” and that if he was not elected president, “America as we know it is ‘done.’”
In recent columns for the conservative website TownHall.com, Crabtree has called for the purge of federal employees in response to the “system-wide effort to sabotage President Trump's White House”; predicted that Trump will destroy the Democratic Party by “produc[ing] an economy that he has promised”; and claimed that protesters at the Women’s March on Washington were “stuck between delusional and mental instability.”
In late January, Spicer announced that he planned to occasionally provide “Skype Seats” to “a diverse group of journalists” who live outside of the Washington, D.C., area, in order to “benefit us all by giving a platform to voices that are not necessarily based here in the Beltway.” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter warned at the time that the development “could be a great thing, or it could be a way to stack the room with pro-Trump media outlets.”
Two months later, it is clear that Spicer is using this innovation to pack the briefings with what SiriusXM White House correspondent Jared Rizzi has termed “Skypeophants”: “super-friendly questioner[s] used to burn up briefing time.”
Twenty people have been hand-picked by Spicer to ask questions at briefings via Skype thus far. Twelve were mainstream journalists from regional outlets, like WMUR political director Josh McElveen, KXTX-Dallas news anchor Norma Garcia, and Hearst Connecticut Media Group reporter Neil Vigdor.
The other eight were right-wing political commentators who have provided Spicer with a way to reward supporters while ensuring that he has a respite from tough questions. At least one right-wing talking head has asked a question at each “Skype Seats” session.
In the first of these briefings, conservative talk radio host Lars Larson and newspaper publisher Jeff Jobe, a Trump endorser who has run for office as a Republican, were among the lucky recipients. Larson asked whether Trump could “tell the Forest Service to start logging our forest aggressively again to provide jobs for Americans.” Jobe prefaced his question by saying that “anyone paying attention will see that President Trump is aggressively acting on his campaign promise” before asking when the president plans to reverse coal mining restrictions.
Boston Herald Radio columnist Adriana Cohen is a Trump supporter perhaps best known for blowing up a CNN segment during the Republican primary by citing the National Enquirer to accuse fellow panelist Amanda Carpenter of having had an affair with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). On February 8, Spicer rewarded her with a Skype Seat, and she asked about Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s “vow to house illegal immigrants in Boston City Hall to shield them from the Trump administration.”
The next week, Jason Stevens, an author for the hyperpartisan right-wing website the Federalist Papers Project, had the privilege to attend via Skype. After stating that his readers want to return “the country to the first principles of republican government as understood by the American founders,” he asked, “What are the president’s future plans for rolling back the expensive and burdensome regulations of the administrative state, most of which are the product of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who never received the consent of the governed to do anything, let alone make law?”
Spicer isn’t simply creating the space for more geographic and ideological diversity in the White House press briefing room -- as SiriusXM’s Rizzi told The New Yorker, he’s creating “diversity of journalistic practice” by hand-picking friendly commentators, rather than reporters, to ask questions at the briefings.
The press secretary’s actions seem geared toward creating an equivalence between those right-wing voices and the reporters in the press briefing. In doing so, Spicer suggests that he is simply providing a counterpoint to purportedly left-wing reporters for outlets like The New York Times and CNN.
Trump and his officials are at war with the media, lashing out at journalists on a near-daily basis for providing information critical of the president. At the same time, they are encouraging pro-Trump outlets to attend the briefings to troll journalists; handing out passes to “alt-right” figures; and, at times, calling solely on right-wing outlets at press conferences.
As the administration flounders and the president pushes absurd conspiracy theories, Spicer is defending the indefensible on a daily basis. It helps to be able to phone a friend.
UPDATE: After being grilled with a series of questions about Trump's baseless claim that President Barack Obama tapped his phones, Spicer bailed out by calling on Crabtree, who thanked him for “taking questions from a talk radio host right here in Georgia, and not in the D.C. swamp.” While earlier press briefings featured multiple “Skype Seat” recipients, this was the second time in a row that a conservative radio host was the only hand-picked person to call in.
Media Matters Research Analyst Rob Savillo provided data for this piece.