It began like a hurricane as he ranted at reporters and, channeling his master’s voice, declared war on reality itself. It ended exactly half a year later, petering out like a drizzle of rain.
Sean Spicer quit as White House press secretary on Friday after it became clear Donald Trump was hiring Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier with virtually no relevant experience, as his new communications director.
It was not only the latest indication of chaos and dysfunction at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but also cause for something like mourning among a legion of viewers and satirists. In the space of six months, Spicer had become a reality TV celebrity doing what critics said was the toughest job in the world: defending the indefensible.
It was 5.39pm on a cold, grey Saturday in January, the day of the Women’s March on Washington, when Spicer first strode to the podium in the James S Brady Press Briefing Room. There were some empty seats, but those present were treated to an extraordinary tirade in which the spokesman – wearing a grey pinstripe suit rather too big around the collar – angrily denounced the media and falsely claimed: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.”
Distinguished journalists who thought they had seen it all grimaced. One sighed: “I feel like I’m back at school, being given a ticking off by the head teacher.” A correspondent told his viewers that Spicer “tore a strip off the media as wide as an Iowa farm”.
But although he began like judge and jury, in the months that followed, Spicer, 45, increasingly came to resemble a prisoner in the dock, wilting under cross-examination and caught out in self-contradictions. The daily press briefings became a must-watch like courtroom TV and a gift that kept on giving to comedians, most notably Melissa McCarthy, who parodied Spicer on Saturday Night Live.
There were misleading statements, incoherent statements and offensive statements. In March, the stocky, gum-chewing Spicer, who is also a lieutenant in the naval reserve, stepped up to the lectern with an upside-down American flag badge on his lapel – which in flag protocol is a sign of distress.
Perhaps most notoriously, in April he was forced to apologise for making an “inappropriate and insensitive” statement comparing Adolf Hitler to the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, by suggesting that the Nazi leader “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons”. With panic in his eyes, he also referred to “Holocaust centres” instead of extermination camps.
In May, when Trump fired James Comey as director of the FBI, Spicer delivered an impromptu, much-mocked briefing in the dark near some bushes in the White House grounds. The former Republican National Committee communications director’s explanation for Comey’s dismissal was undermined by the president soon after.
For most of the daily briefings, Spicer was brash and belligerent, getting peeved about Russia questions and offering deflections such as: “If the president put Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russia connection,” and the common refrain: “The president’s tweet speaks for itself.” But at the start and end, and in one-on-one conversations with reporters, there would often be a cheerful “Hello” and a friendlier manner – a hint at how the hostility was partly calculated theatre.
On one occasion, the Guardian went to visit Spicer in his West Wing office, where digital clocks show various time zones; the biggest is reserved for whatever time zone the president is in. The press secretary did not offer his visitor a seat but remained standing behind his desk. He was polite but could not resist glancing at the news channels on his multiple TVs from time to time. Spicer seemed to acknowledge that Trump’s victory had come as a surprise to everyone involved. He wound up the meeting after a few minutes.
Just as Trump has been described as the anti-Obama, Spicer could hardly have been more different from his predecessor, the temperate Josh Earnest. Last year, with a presidential election in full swing, there would often be unoccupied seats toward the back of the briefing room. But this year it became a standing-room-only crucible of the wildly unpredictable Trump administration, crackling with anticipation even though Trump himself, unlike Obama, has yet to make a personal appearance there.
The president reportedly admired Spicer’s “great ratings” and insisted he would not fire the man once dubbed “Sean Sphincter” by a student newspaper. But the writing on the wall was obvious when the press secretary, a Catholic, went on Trump’s first foreign trip only to be denied a meeting with the pope at the Vatican. Even some of his adversaries in the White House press corps felt a sliver of sympathy.
In recent weeks, it has been a slow fade to black. More and more of the daily press briefings were delivered off camera – it was widely suspected this was because Spicer did not want his boss to watch – and increasingly, the duty was handed to the less combative deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who will succeed him.
Spicer appeared on 26 June and again this Monday, when a reporter greeted him: “We miss you, Sean.” He replied flatly: “Well, I miss you too.”
His final words from the podium were a prosaic reference to a “made in America” showcase and not for the history books: “Thank you, guys. Hope to have you get a good look at what’s going on outside, and the pool will do a great job. Thanks.”
And with that, Sean Spicer dropped the mic.