‘I saw you on Sean Spicer’: Trump press briefings become hottest show in town

The White House press secretary is aggressive, antagonistic and flustered. And, in the spotlight of live TV, he can appear to be channeling his pugnacious master

Every visitor says it’s smaller than they expected. The modest James S Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House fills with about a hundred journalists, half in the fixed seats, half standing in the aisles or at the back. Each lunchtime there is an expectant murmur, like a theatre audience before curtain up. TV reporters stand at the front, each speaking directly to camera and contriving to ignore the others standing inches away.

Seconds after they sign off, in walks the star of the show: Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. The thickset 45-year-old will often begin with a genial pleasantry – “Hope everyone had a great weekend, seriously,” he said last Monday – that belies the vituperative fusillades set to follow. Many men and women have stood at the podium but there has never quite been anything like this for event television.

“Sean Spicer has gone almost to a hundred days with standing room only and I find that many people stop me on the street and say, ‘I saw you on Sean Spicer’ as if they’re saying, ‘I saw you on Doctor Who,’” said John Gizzi, chief political correspondent at Newsmax, one of the conservative outlets now regularly called upon to ask questions.

This was a vintage week for viewers. On Tuesday, Spicer expressed his frustration by saying: “If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection.” He also clashed with reporter April Ryan, admonishing: “Please stop shaking your head” – a churlish comment that earned rebukes from Hillary Clinton and several journalists (Ryan herself tweeted: “Lawd!!!!”). The following day Spicer gave Ryan the opening question, perhaps in coded apology.

‘Let the tweet speak for itself’: Spicer on Trump’s Freedom Caucus attack – video

On Friday he repeatedly berated reporters for focusing on Donald Trump’s alleged links to Russia rather than the president’s allegation that Barack Obama’s administration leaked classified information about him. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times tweeted: “This is the most SNL yet of these briefings” – a reference to TV comedy show Saturday Night Live, in which actor Melissa McCarthy parodies Spicer’s gum-chewing aggression with a motorised lectern that wreaks havoc.

‘I don’t talk so good’: Melissa McCarthy impersonates Sean Spicer on SNL

More haunting words came from David Frum, a senior editor of the Atlantic and former speechwriter for George W Bush. “The Spicer show is so fascinating precisely because he remembers when he used to have a conscience,” he wrote. “And the memory troubles him.”

Spicer has been in a harsh spotlight ever since the first full day of the administration, when he stormed into the briefing room and angrily insisted that the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration was bigger than Obama’s, which it was not.

Since then, some distracting neck ties and verbal tics have emerged. On Friday he used the word “interesting” 10 times in an hour. A week earlier he lectured reporters – “You guys are so negative!” – over the healthcare bill, which collapsed within hours. Another day he told them: “At some point, I would implore, urge, beg some of you to use some of your investigative skills.”

But perhaps Spicer’s most trusty line, covering for an unpredictable and itchy-fingered boss, is this: “The president’s tweets speak for themselves.”

‘It’s like mimicry’

It also emerged this week that Spicer is well-off. Financial disclosures released by the White House showed he held investments in McDonald’s, Walmart, Coca-Cola and Exxon Mobil and appears to have taken out four mortgages in the first 60 days of 2017, acquiring Trump’s taste for property deals.

Indeed, at times he appears to be channeling his pugnacious master. Michael Cornfield, associate professor of political management at George Washington University, said: “The stuff with April Ryan replicates what Trump did on the campaign trail. It’s kind of eerie in that respect. It’s like mimicry.”

Cornfield said he has been watching press secretaries since Ron Ziegler, spokesman for Richard Nixon, but Spicer is unprecedented: “If we’re talking about how do we try to find a context to understand Spicer, we either have to go to fiction or we have to go to his boss, because a long line of predecessors behaved very differently from this guy.

“Past press secretaries have shaded the truth or even lied but it’s usually just been on one subject or two. Spicer gives out misinformation on everything. The other big difference is how aggressive his behaviour is, which Melissa McCarthy has spoofed terrifically. He attacks.

“The others when they have to shade the truth have been defensive, which is not to say they haven’t been antagonistic – they have – but Spicer is a soldier and he’s attacking people.”

Mike McLintock, played by Matt Walsh, in Veep.
Mike McLintock, played by Matt Walsh, in Veep. Photograph: HBO

Even in TV comedies such as Veep, Cornfield said, there is not quite anyone like Spicer. “When Mike McLintock, the press secretary played by Matt Walsh, has to say something untrue or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, it’s always played for comedy. He gets flustered. But when Spicer gets flustered, there’s this level of antagonism and aggressiveness that’s not fun.”

Frank Rich, an executive producer of Veep who is also a writer-at-large for New York magazine, agreed that Spicer’s daily briefings are a unique phenomenon.

“Like everything else associated with Trump, including the president himself, watching is a form of entertainment,” he said. “Some people hate-watch it, I guess some people watch it with admiration, some people in my case watch it in the way one might watch a train wreck in the presidency.

“It’s been fascinating. It’s certainly something no one alive has ever seen in Washington before and it’ll be interesting to see how every fictional version of Washington on television, including the one I’m involved with, looks in relation to it to viewers.”

Spicer’s conduct has also generated comparisons to authoritarian regimes. In January Andrew Beatty, White House correspondent of Agence France-Presse, nodded towards the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, tweeting: “Honestly, covering Mugabe was more straightforward than this.”

This week, Beatty explained: “Just in the sense that any question is considered an affront and their automatic response is to fight, which for the Russia investigation, for example, exacerbates the sense that they’re covering something up … they fuel suspicions by behaving suspiciously.”

‘It’s a TV show, you’re playing your part’

The White House press corps have tussled with the new administration over changes they believe limits access and transparency. In February, Spicer’s decision to hold an off-camera briefing with a select group of reporters – with several outlets barred – sparked an intense backlash.

Concerns have also been raised about the growing prevalence of off-camera briefings at the White House, which in previous administrations have typically been reserved for when the press secretary is travelling with the president and must brief reporters aboard Air Force One. There has been speculation that Spicer prefers it when Trump is not watching.

Trump Putin team
Trump speaks with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the Oval Office with, from left, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, vice-president, Mike Pence, chief strategist, Steve Bannon, Spicer and then national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Beatty said: “You can tell the difference in his behaviour on days when Trump is holding a meeting at the same time as the press conference. He’s much more relaxed, much more subdued, joking around, and you can see some days at the beginning he was getting notes and his behaviour changed when he received the notes. There were a couple of times when he left the podium very abruptly.”

Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under Bush from 2001 to 2003, believes televising the briefings is part of the problem. “Just because it makes for juicy TV doesn’t mean it’s good for the republic,” he said, noting that the behaviour of both parties – the press and the press secretary – is by nature more theatrical when the cameras are rolling.

The end result, he argues, is that the press secretary has to be “exceptionally guarded”, knowing the president is watching: “You have to look for moments or openings to deliver a juicy line with panache.

“And reporters, knowing their colleagues and editors are watching, become more confrontational. The conversation can often be convivial, but when it’s live on TV it becomes far more adversarial. It’s a TV show, you’re playing your part.”

Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for six years under Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, said there is another key factor in how the briefings have evolved under the new administration: the president and his extraordinary war with the media.

“The one everlasting fact about the briefing, in whatever form it takes, is that it always reflects the president,” he said.

“Certainly the biggest factor with President Trump is that he has a totally different attitude about how to conduct himself, the role of the press, and the fact is he is a combative president and therefore his press secretary is also combative.”

Fitzwater was quick, however, to recall a conversation he once had with one of the doyennes of the White House press corps.

Helen Thomas used to tell me, ‘Remember, Marlin, that the only thing we care about is the president and your value is only in your ability to reflect the president.’”


David Smith and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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