He's only broadcast from the White House briefing room three times, but on each occasion presidential press secretary Sean Spicer has been asked to do the impossible.
He’s only broadcast from the White House briefing room three times, but on each occasion presidential press secretary Sean Spicer has been asked to do the impossible: square President Donald Trump’s screwball view of the world with what both Spicer and the press corps know better comports with reality.
On Saturday, Spicer was sent to the briefing room on a suicide mission to present his no-questions-will-be-asked claim that the Trump inauguration’s “in-person” attendance was the largest ever, when it obviously wasn’t. On Monday, a less shrill and almost self-effacing Spicer returned to the ring to spar in a more conventional manner with reporters, attempting to make jokes but fumbling when he said, “I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts”—when what he obviously meant was, “I think sometimes we can disagree about the facts.” Even so, Spicer sought—against all good evidence—to restate his boss’ dearly held position that Friday’s inaugural was “the most watched,” when it obviously wasn’t. On Tuesday, Sean invited another beating when he insisted that a Pew study supported the president’s assertion that great numbers of non-citizens could have voted in the election, when they obviously didn’t, as the primary author of the study tweeted in real time.
Story Continued Below
In a conventional administration, Spicer would have been shredded by now and recycled to the American Beverage Association to serve as its spokesman. But this is not a conventional administration, and Spicer is not the conventional press secretary. In his first days on the job he has resembled Patrick Ramsey, the Washington Redskins quarterback who served as the sacrificial beast for coach Steve Spurrier’s stupid “Fun ’n’ Gun“ offense in the previous decade. Mauled by defenses, Ramsey became a walking concussion by season’s end, a fine athlete tortured by a sadistic boss.
Trump hasn’t required Spicer to submit to physical punishment—yet. It’s the job of every presidential press secretary to finesse the misstatements and gaffes made by the boss. But no podium-pounder in recent memory has been asked to do what Spicer has been asked to do—apply a gloss to baseless conspiracy theories that have already been debunked—and retail it to reporters.
Reporters are onto the Spicer gambit already, none more so than NPR’s Mara Liasson. On Monday, she slyly asked him to name the unemployment rate, a frequent subject of Trump’s trutherism. On Tuesday, she again toyed with Spicer when she asked in a slightly exaggerated manner whether Trump’s allegation of massive voter fraud by 3 million to 5 million people doesn’t necessitate an investigation. “Maybe we will,” Spicer said, before drifting off into a free-associationland comment about Trump’s focus being more about “putting Americans back to work.”
“It was a comment he made on a longstanding belief,” Spicer added, attempting to close the door on the issue. The press corps may not have audibly snickered at him, but you could sense their mirth in the thought balloons floating like soap bubbles in the press room.
You’d be right to think that Spicer can’t go on like this, cleaning up one Trump mess after another but only making them messier. But you’d also be wrong, because, as we’ve noted, this is not your conventional administration. To return to the sports metaphor, Sean Spicer doesn’t suit up in a champion’s uniform. He dons the shorts and jersey of the Washington Generals, the klutzy team that played fixed exhibition matches against the Harlem Globetrotters, and almost always lost. Like Spicer, the Generals won by losing. After losing, the Generals would go to bed, wake up, and win again the next day by losing even more disastrously.
How did the Generals win by losing? For one thing, nobody expected them to win. Their defeat was integral to the greater game plan, part of their service to a higher power, specifically the Globetrotters. Their job was to put on a good show and be abused by the Globetrotters until the buzzer sounded. Nobody who understands Trump expects Spicer to beat the press in the briefing room as he defends his boss’ latest nutbag idea, only to keep the ball in plausible play until time is called and the cameras dim. Like the Generals, Spicer must put up a fight that’s good enough to deflect attention from the president, so he can skate on to his next demonstration of nutbaggery.
This doesn’t mean the press briefings are a waste of time. It’s important to record Trump’s positions and statements and to expose them to the same scrutiny dished out to previous presidents. But Trump’s casual—some would say malicious—approach to the truth makes Spicer’s job different than that of press secretaries before him, most of whom weren’t asked to sacrifice their dignity on a daily basis. Spicer’s disposition, his willingness to take guff from both his boss and sarcastic reporters without cracking, may reduce his daily briefing to a gladiatorial spectacle. People who don’t like Trump will watch the show and say, “Oh, Spicer took a thrashing!” Trump’s supporters will cheer and say, “Spicer stuck it to them again!”
At the next press briefing, look for a Washington Generalsesque twinkle in Spicer’s eye as reporters ask their Trump-related questions. He knows that reporters are going to score on him, and he knows that it isn’t going to be pretty. But he also knows that it isn’t his job to beat the press, only to occupy the court with stoic courage—to “disagree with the facts” as long as he can. His ultimate job isn’t to serve the press. It’s to satisfy the man who lives in the high golden castle, who watches his every televised move.
I saw the Globetrotters and the Generals in the cheap seats back in the early 1960s. Send your basketball diary to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have perfected the chocolate thunder dunk, my Twitter feed owns an old ABA tri-colored ball, and my RSS feed fouls out of every game.
Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.