Sean Spicer made headlines on Tuesday, for all the reasons White House press secretaries aren’t supposed to make headlines. He spent much of Wednesday apologizing, and, perhaps, worrying about his job security.
Spicer’s comment at Tuesday’s briefing that Adolf Hitler, unlike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” shocked reporters, inflamed social media and led to a calls for him to step down as President Trump’s spokesman.
But Spicer seems unlikely to be on the way out, for several reasons.
For one, Spicer began multiple rounds of public apologies and self-flaggelation that tamped down some of the outrage about his gaffe, which came at the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover. His contrition tour began with a CNN interview on Tuesday and continued through Wednesday, with a scheduled stop on Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor,” an odd choice given the controversy swirling around host Bill O’Reilly. (O’Reilly left for an abrupt two-week vacation and wasn’t scheduled to host his program on Wednesday.)
Spicer has plenty of critics in the press room – reporters privately grumble about his belittling and badgering of them during briefings – but he has powerful allies inside the White House. Since being named Trump’s press secretary, he has built a strong rapport with the president, insiders say. Another ally: Chief of staff Reince Priebus, who worked with Spicer at the Republican National Committee and championed his White House appointment.
Trump, who sometimes watches Spicer’s televised briefings from the Oval Office and occasionally slips him notes mid-briefing, has shown dogged loyalty to many of his embattled lieutenants, especially in the face of Democratic criticism.
Indeed, several Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, called on Trump to fire Spicer or for Spicer to resign in the wake of the Hitler comment – suggestions likely to strengthen Spicer with Trump rather than hurt him.
Trump may also have a practical reason for keeping his press secretary on the job: There’s no clear successor to Spicer in the White House’s press operation.
There was no briefing scheduled on Wednesday, giving Spicer a breather from the press room.
His tenure as press secretary got off to what might be charitably called a rocky start when he ripped the news media’s reporting on the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd a day after the event. He made a number of mistaken statements in support of the overall claim, which Trump seemed to be obsessed with.
Since then, Spicer has adopted a combative stance, often debating with reporters rather than giving a direct reply.
Not a good look, some reporters suggest.
“Look, the relationship between any press secretary and the press corps is strained,” said Peter Baker, the chief White House reporter for The New York Times. “If it’s not, it probably means one of us isn’t doing our job right. But it can be professional and civil even if it’s adversarial, and history shows that when it degenerates into open hostility, it doesn’t actually serve the White House well.”
Baker, who has dealt with 11 press secretaries in his years covering the White House, added, “Anyone can make a mistake under the pressure of the podium, and when you do, the best thing to do is fix it and apologize promptly, which Sean did. The bigger issue, the more fundamental issue is whether there’s a basic respect for the role of the independent media. That’s a question that hasn’t been answered yet.”
Some reporters draw a distinction between the private Spicer, who can be friendly, accommodating and professional, and the man at the White House podium. Spicer is a familiar figure among reporters, having worked with them at the RNC and in government roles before that.
The Spicer who resembles a Melissa McCarthy parody, however, is largely a creation of the demands placed on him by Trump, they say.
“He is genuinely well-liked in the press room,” said John Gizzi, the chief White House correspondent for Newsmax. “He has survived clashes and harsh words with those who cover him because they like and forgive him.”
Spicer’s relationship with journalists has been strained, Gizzi said, because he’s the spokesman “for a president who is controversial with and distant from [many] of those who cover him.”
Another veteran White House reporter, who asked not to be identified, was sympathetic, to a point.
“My sense is that Spicer is in a terrible situation, given the demands of a mercurial boss who watches him perform almost daily and thinks he himself could do a better job as spokesman,” he said. “But in public he has to adopt the tough-guy attitude” that mirrors Trump’s campaign and the notion that he is disrupting traditional Washington.
Alexis Simendinger, a veteran White House reporter for RealClear Politics, said Trump’s press team, away from the TV cameras, can be more forthcoming and easier to deal with than President Barack Obama’s team, which she described as “cocky, controlling, punitive, and in many ways the least transparent of the staffs I’ve covered going back a ways.”
Simendinger, whose reporting career spans 14 presidential press secretaries, doesn’t know how long Spicer will stay around. But she doesn’t expect it to be very long.
“It’s a tough job with high turnover,” she said. “There is nothing about this president or this White House that would suggest Sean’s longevity would surpass his predecessors’ tenures, and his fortunes may be tied to others inside the West Wing. When presidents are unhappy with policy, politics, or lack of momentum, they tend to seek staff changes to try to recover.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Paul Farhi