Sean Spicer could be ready to step away from ill-starred podium reign

Reports say the White House press secretary is planning to take a behind-the-scenes role, amid fears Trump is eroding the daily briefing in favour of Twitter

Sean Spicer, a key public face of the Donald Trump administration since Inauguration Day, may finally be preparing to quit his job as White House press secretary and switch to a behind-the-scenes role, according to multiple media reports.

After months of speculation, Spicer – who has become infamous for staunchly defending the president and making demonstrably inaccurate or contradictory claims – is now planning to take on a more strategic communications position that would mean someone else holding daily press briefings, the Associated Press said.

Three sources told the AP that Spicer had spoken to possible successors for the roles of press secretary and communications director, both of which might be seen as poisoned chalices.

Asked about the possible shake-up on Tuesday, Spicer joked: “I’m right here,” telling reporters: “You can keep taking your selfies.” But he added: “Look, it’s no secret we’ve had a couple of vacancies, including the communications director ... We’re always looking for ways to do a better job to articulate the president’s job and agenda.” If and when changes were made, Spicer said, there would be an announcement.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, who has occasionally stood in for Spicer at the podium, said on Monday: “We have sought input from many people as we look to expand our communications operation. As he did in the beginning, Sean Spicer is managing both the communications and press office.”

That is because of the departure of the communications director, Mike Dubke, who left the White House earlier this month. Discussions about a wider overhaul of the White House communications office have gone on for weeks, with Spicer now reportedly hoping to completely quit the daily briefings, which his boss is thought to watch avidly on TV.

Spicer’s enthusiasm for the briefings has visibly drained. His answers to questions have become terser, his mood darker. All queries about the investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s election, for example, are now referred to an outside lawyer. Spicer also parries by saying he does not know about certain matters because he has not spoken to the president about them.

“Spicer increasingly seems to be taking the approach that if he literally doesn’t know anything then it’s not lying when he can’t answer,” tweeted Chris Hayes, a host on MSNBC.

There was another example on Tuesday was Spicer was asked for a yes or no answer on whether Trump believed the Russian government interfered in last year’s election, as the US intelligence community has concluded. “I think, I have not sat down and talked to him about that specific thing,” Spicer replied. “Obviously we’ve been dealing with a lot of other issues today. I’d be glad to touch base.”

The reporter tried again but got a similar answer. Jim Acosta, a CNN correspondent, interjected: “Didn’t the president say Russia was fake news?” Spicer ignored him.

Briefings have also become shorter – sometimes, Spicer brings a cabinet secretary who takes up most of the time – less regular, and increasingly off camera. On Monday, reporters were not even allowed to release audio recordings, leading to criticism from the press corps.

Explaining that decision, Spicer said Trump had spoken before cameras during an Oval Office meeting with the president of Panama and would later make remarks in front of the media at an event with technology leaders. “There are days that I’ll decide that the president’s voice should be the one that speaks and iterate his priorities,” Spicer said.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer with Kellyanne Conway.
Sean Spicer with Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

But few in the White House press corps were impressed. Acosta told CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin on Monday: “So the White House press secretary is getting to a point, Brooke, where he’s just kind of useless. You know, if he can’t come out and answer the questions and they’re just not going to do this on camera or audio, why are we even having these briefings or these gaggles in the first place?”

Acosta raised the question of whether journalists should take a stand against the White House approach. “I don’t know why everybody is going along with this,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And it just feels like we’re sort of slowly but surely being dragged into what is a new normal in this country where the president of the United States is allowed to insulate himself from answering hard questions.”

The daily press briefings have become must-watch television in the Trump era. But going back further, they have been seen as a vital window on the thinking and workings of the administration of the world’s superpower. There are fears that Trump is eroding this democratic tool and casting Twitter as an alternative.

He tweeted last week: “The fake news media hates when I use what has turned out to be my very powerful social media – over 100 million people! I can go around them.” And last month, he threatened to shut down daily press briefings while telling Fox News that Spicer was “doing a good job, but he gets beat up”.

Spicer’s ill-starred tenure at the podium began with a pugnacious, inaccurate claim that journalists wrongly portrayed the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. In April, he apologised 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”. He also referred to “Holocaust centers” instead of extermination camps.

The 45-year-old Spicer, a former Republican National Committee strategist, has been the subject of recurring skits by Melissa McCarthy on the TV variety show Saturday Night Live.

Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist, said: “He was destroyed at the outset by Trump, who sent him out there to lie about the inaugural crowd, and then Melissa McCarthy delivered the coup de grâce. Now, when you see Sean Spicer, you can’t help but think of Melissa McCarthy. I suspect we’re heading for another SNL parody of whoever succeeds him.”

Regular, open press briefings are an important principle, Shrum added. “It’s something that matters, that people pay attention to and, I think, that the country is entitled to. But they [the Trump administration] have obviously concluded it does nothing but harm to them. Donald Trump has basically violated every rule in the book … and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they cut off as much access as possible. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did the daily briefing by Twitter.”

Rich Galen, a Republican strategist and former press secretary to Dan Quayle, vice-president under George HW Bush, said he had known Spicer for decades. “Nobody could do that job, and he didn’t disprove that. I have a great deal of respect for Sean, and I think anything that gets him from behind the podium is a good thing.”

White House briefings were not televised until the Bill Clinton administration, when press secretary Mike McCurry decided to let in cameras, a move he later said he regretted. Galen added: “The briefings have never been for information-sharing; they were for message-delivering. This year, they’ve become a contest between reporters to see which of them can make the press secretary cry first.”

Trump has long seen himself as his own best spokesman, and he has blamed his communications team for much of the early trouble at the White House as well as the backlash from the firing of the FBI director, James Comey.

Several names have been touted as possible successors to Spicer, including Huckabee Sanders; Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio host and author; David Martosko, the US political editor of the Daily Mail; Geoff Morrell, a former Pentagon press secretary; and Scott Reed, a senior political strategist at the US Chamber of Commerce. “Anybody that I like, I would warn against taking it,” Galen said.

In the frame?

Laura Ingraham

From Glastonbury, Connecticut

Age 54

Current job Radio talk show host and conservative political commentator. Editor in chief and co-founder of the conservative website and author of several political books.

Credentials Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter and law clerk for the supreme court justice Clarence Thomas. Championed Trump at the Republican national convention last year, although she has also been critical of him.

What they say “Nativist hate-monger” (The Daily Kos)

Twitter bio Mom, Editor-in-Chief of LifeZette. Host, The Laura Ingraham Show, 9 to Noon ET. Listen live, join Laura365 to listen 24/7. Fox News.

Most recent tweet “EVIL: Teen Magazine: American Teen Tortured Into Coma In North Korea Deserved It Because Of His ‘Whiteness’”

David Martosko

From Ohio

Age 46

Current job US political editor of the Daily Mail

Credentials Previously at The Daily Caller under Tucker Carlson. Was linked with the press secretary job when Trump won. BuzzFeed reported that Martosko sent a confidential memo to Trump when he was president-elect suggesting that reporters covering his administration should be drug tested twice a year. But he once tweeted: “Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer. Oh. My. God. Better than Larry David as Bernie Sanders. Better than hot cocoa in December.”

What they say “Trump’s de facto comms director” (Jenna Johnson of the Washington Post). “If Donald Trump had a journalistic soulmate, it would probably be David Martosko” (Politico).

Twitter bio Words mean things. @DailyMail US Political Editor. Ohio native. ‘The most intrepid reporter thus far’ – Huma Abedin (via Wikileaks!)

Most recent tweet “If you’ve always wanted to know what Jared Kushner sounds like... Today’s your day.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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