Whenever cable news broadcasts the regular White House press briefings these days, there’s a moment you’re likely to catch if you’re able to maintain interest in the proceedings. Sean Spicer will get animated ― shoutish and emotional ― and begin to weave away from whatever the message of the day might be. He’ll pick fights, he’ll air grievances ― mostly he’ll fall back on some flailing, superficial appearance of toughness and feigned stability. Poker players ― and fans of hacky poker movies ― have a name for this condition: tilt.
This is the quality that “Saturday Night Live” and its guest portrayer of Spicer, Melissa McCarthy, mined for great comedic effects. It’s also what The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noticed, detailed in a Sunday piece titled “Sean Spicer Is Losing His Grip.” Chances are you’ve noticed it too.
Spicer is hardly the first person to run the press room for a Republican president. He’s not the first press secretary who’s faced an unruly press corps. That he may hold to the opinion that the media is untrustworthy, or “the opposition,” hardly makes him unique in American politics, either. And as near as I can tell, he faced all of these challenges when he repped the Republican National Committee ― all without these regular lapses into emotional confusion and needless over-aggression.
But lately Spicer has been scoring own goals, getting into pointless dust-ups and burning his political capital with all of the fervor of a pyromaniac. And based upon Monday’s news, there’s no end in sight, unless he is the victim (or beneficiary?) of some soon-to-come “staff shakeup,” of which rumors abound.
Monday, Axios’ Mike Allen returned to the White House’s efforts to attempt to push back on a New York Times story that reported that Trump’s campaign aides “had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence.” This effort involved literally putting rival reporters from The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal on the phone with, among others, CIA Director Mike Pompeo ― an unusual breach of protocol. Reporters were also provided with contact information for Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
On these calls, reporters weren’t given much to go on ― they were just told that the Times story was not accurate. While this didn’t do much to advance the story, the fact that these calls happened was subsequently leaked ― a backdoor way of getting Pompeo’s dispute into the public record. It was also a backdoor way of magnifying the similar assessment of an unknown FBI official, who referred to the Times’ story as “bullshit.” Notably, this FBI official declined to offer this assessment for public consumption ― it, too, was leaked to the press by the White House.
According to Allen’s report, it was Spicer who “personally picked up the phone and connected outside officials with reporters to try to discredit” the Times story, according to an unnamed “senior administration official.”
It is, of course, only natural that Spicer, as press secretary, would try to enable pushback by putting reporters in touch with those who could dispute the story. But many of these specific moves Spicer made will have the unintended effect of diminishing the perceived integrity of these sources. Considering that these efforts ended up only “frustrating the competing reporters” on these calls, as Allen reports, that’s a lot to give up for so very little.
Letting it be known that an FBI official has termed the Times story “bullshit” when that official specifically declined to let that be known is going to make the bureau seem less credible. Getting Burr and Nunes mixed up in the matter will make those committee chairmen look like water carriers for the Trump administration instead of independent actors. (Of course, in Spicer’s defense, Burr and Nunes could have declined to participate. Perhaps Nunes, who ended up being “in and out of an event” and unable to respond to reporters’ requests for comment, found a convenient means to have it both ways.)
Another thing Spicer enabled? This Axios article! Which means this story is just back in the news churn for another indeterminate period of time.
And this is just part of Spicer’s recent woes as he has attempted to ply his trade for the Trump White House. On Feb. 18, CBS News’ Major Garrett tweeted that two of his sources had told him that President Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of the Navy, Philip Bilden, was likely to withdraw from consideration ― the latest such person to decline to serve in a national security capacity for the administration. Spicer was on Twitter eight minutes later to forcefully dispute Garrett:
Maybe you’ve heard the punchline to this joke already. Per the Washington Post’s Missy Ryan:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced that Philip Bilden, a private equity fund manager, had withdrawn his name in a decision “driven by privacy concerns and significant challenges he faced in separating himself from his business interests.”
“While I am disappointed, I understand and respect his decision, and know that he will continue to support our nation in other ways,” Mattis said in a statement.
In his own statement made public by the Pentagon, Bilden said he concluded that he would not be able to fulfill U.S. ethics rules “without undue disruption and materially adverse divestment of my family’s private financial interests.”
Read between the lines and you’ll see a Trump nominee who clearly didn’t like what he heard during his meeting with the Office of Government Ethics, which makes you wonder why Spicer would so confidently refute Garrett’s tweet. Did he not foresee how a private equity fund manager might not particularly fancy totally divesting from his assets? Either way, this episode had a familiar “Baghdad Bob” ring to it.
In another strange conflict between Spicer and reporters covering the president, the press secretary was at the center of a bizarre dust-up over the weekend that began with news leaking out about how he was contending with ... news leaking out all the damned time. A Politico story by Annie Karni and Alex Isenstadt described how Spicer was making “random phone checks of White House staffers.”
According to the story, “after Spicer became aware that information had leaked out of a planning meeting with about a dozen of his communication staffers,” he convened an “emergency meeting” at which he ordered his staffers to relinquish their phones for a “phone check,” a move that would definitely root out the amateur leakers in his midst. Obviously, this wasn’t enough of a deterrent to keep Karni and Isenstadt from widely breaking the news of this unusual step.
But what happened afterward made the “phone check” look positively rational.
Late Sunday, the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner published a Paul Bedard story that essentially accuses Politico’s Isenstadt of callously chuckling as Spicer described Deputy Communications Director Jessica Ditto’s “emotional” response to the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. But the evidence contained therein is tissue thin ― it’s solely the characterization of one unnamed “informed official” from the White House. Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring called the account a “patently false characterization of the conversation,” adding that Isenstadt was instead chuckling at Spicer’s heated response. And, after the fact, Isenstadt’s colleague Carrie Budoff Brown went on Twitter to essentially assail the White House for committing a malicious act of deceit:
It was a pretty ironic act as well, given the fact that Trump had, only days before, complained about White House leaks and specious sourcing as he spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Was Spicer Bedard’s source? A few winks and a nudge or two are probably in order, at the very least.
As Wemple noted Sunday, Spicer’s cup of gripes has lately runneth over. It was only last week that the press secretary was sowing animosity anew by barring a number of news organizations (including CNN and The New York Times) from a closed-door gaggle of White House reporters.
A day later, Spicer ended up crosswise with another New York Times story, about how deftly Trump has historically used New York City’s tabloids to serve his ends. Spicer’s objection? The story misreported where he was born.
Of course, the paper subsequently endeavored to correct this matter. But after calling out the Times for not asking him for the correct information, Spicer then declined to go on the record and set the matter straight. Wemple’s succinct evaluation cannot be improved upon: “Leave it to Sean Spicer to request a correction and obstruct it in one breath.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper got in a quality zing, though:
At least Tapper is having a good time. The same cannot be said for Spicer, however. Frankly, it’s getting tough to watch him at work and not imagine that he’s constantly thinking, “This isn’t the job I signed up for.”
And maybe he didn’t. After all, Spicer has been serving the White House as both press secretary and White House communications director. That’s a herculean amount of work for anyone. Adding to Spicer’s woes, however, is the fact that he’s doing both jobs for a president who can be described as ― and I’m using the most charitable terms at my disposal ― a mercurial micromanager, one who apparently subjects Spicer to regular critiques.
The strangest thing about all of this is that it is impossible to know if Spicer isn’t a man more sinned against than sinning. Multiple sources have described the Trump White House to this reporter in the same consistent ways: an organization riven by factions, competing agendas and poor communication. It’s really no wonder why this White House is so leaky. It’s also not clear that Spicer, acting on his own, could solve this problem. That he’s taken to randomly checking his underlings’ phones suggests that the moves he could make are extremely limited.
In another presidency, Spicer would probably make a fine press secretary. For now, he’s the guy you’d be only too happy to see at the poker table.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.