Can this marriage be saved?
It doesn’t look good, and “marriage” is probably the last way one would describe the dysfunctional relationship between the brand-new president and the White House press corps.
Scorpions in a bottle is more like it.
Slightly more than a day into his presidency, Donald Trump and his minions declared full-scale hostilities on the people whose job it is to follow him around, define his presidential character and portray his actions and policies to the citizenry.
The president’s mugging of the Fourth Estate at the CIA on Saturday was followed a couple of hours later by an angry yet mendacious scolding in the James S. Brady briefing room administered by Sean Spicer, the brand new White House press secretary and communications director.
“Yesterday, at a time when our nation and the world was watching the peaceful transition of power,” Spicer began his tirade, “some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting”—namely a mistaken tweet and pool report, almost immediately corrected, that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. (which former president Obama had installed in the Oval Office) had been removed, and that news reports maliciously minimized the crowd size for Trump’s inauguration in a dastardly attempt to make him look bad.
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe,” Spicer claimed—never mind estimates, backed up by aerial photographs, that around 250,000 people physically attended Trump’s inauguration (compared to nearly two million who showed up for Obama’s in 2009), while Nielsen numbers indicated that there was also a falloff in television viewers.
It turns out that Spicer’s tantrum was rife with what CNN politely called “misstatements”—and referred to by others, less politely, as outright “lies.”
“I knew Sean Spicer when he was a decent, honest press secretary,” veteran Associated Press White House correspondent Ron Fournier told The Daily Beast, referring to the 45-year-old Spicer’s long career as a spokesman for House Republicans and the Republican National Committee. “Now he looked like he was in a hostage video. They [the president and senior aides] wound him up and sent him out to go to war against the press and tell blatant untruths.”
Fournier guessed that Spicer—who had earlier publicly accepted the sincere apology of Time magazine correspondent Zeke Miller for the pool report containing the error about the MLK Jr. bust—was following President Trump’s direct order to slime the media from briefing room podium. (“This was irresponsible and reckless,” Spicer pronounced on Miller’s honest mistake.)
Stepping out of his spokesman role to act as editor, Spicer instructed the assembled reporters that they should have instead spotlighted how Senate Democrats were "playing politics with national security" in their unwillingness to immediately confirm CIA director-designate Mike Pompeo.
“That’s what you guys should be writing and covering, instead of sowing division about tweets and false narratives,” Spicer declared. “We’re going to hold the press accountable as well,” he added.
Then he stormed out of the briefing room without taking questions.
Fournier’s condemnation of Spicer’s performance—which included counterfactual exaggerations about the size of the inauguration crowd and television audience, as well as an embarrassing mispronunciation of the name of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, whom Spicer erroneously called “prime minister” and “Peña Nato”—echoed near-universal denunciations from members of the press corps and political establishment of both parties.
"Jaw meet floor," New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush tweeted, according to a roundup of reactions assembled by CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter.
"I've run out of adjectives," offered longtime NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd, the moderator of Meet the Press.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who served President George W. Bush, tweeted: "This is called a statement you're told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching."
Hillary Clinton’s campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon, wrote: "Sean Spicer lacks the guts or integrity to refuse orders to go out and lie. He is a failure in this job on his first full day."
And neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol, a former top White House aide for Bush 41 as Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, remarked that "it is embarrassing, as an American, to watch this briefing by Sean Spicer from the podium at the White House. Not the RNC. The White House."
The 45th president—who spent the campaign insulting the reporters covering him as “scum,” “dishonest,” and “the lowest form of life”—is clearly not changing his stripes now that he’s the most powerful human on the planet. And Spicer, apparently goaded by his bosses, is proving himself equally capable of misplaced rage and indignation.
During a visit with CIA employees at the agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters Saturday afternoon, the president went on an extended rant concerning what he called his “running war with the media,” whom he described as “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
“And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community,” Trump complained—as though none of the hundreds of CIA employees in the room would remember that barely a week ago, he bitterly blamed the intelligence community for the leak of a scandalous unverified dossier alleging his misbehavior during a trip to Moscow, or that he repeatedly compared the intelligence community to Nazi Germany.
Astonishingly, while standing in front of a memorial wall honoring 117 CIA officers who gave their lives for their country, the president also and singled out Time’s Zeke Miller for special attention.
Noting that he had been featured on Time’s cover “like, 14 or 15 times—I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine,” the commander in chief went on, according to the official White House transcript: “They said—it was very interesting—that Donald Trump took down the bust, the statue, of Dr. Martin Luther King. And it was right there. But there was a cameraman that was in front of it…So Zeke—Zeke from Time Magazine writes a story about I took down. I would never do that because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King. But this is how dishonest the media is.”
Afterward, a spokesman for Obama’s just-departed CIA director John Brennan issued a furious blast at the president: "Former CIA Director Brennan is deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump's despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA's Memorial Wall of Agency heroes. Brennan says that Trump should be ashamed of himself."
Fournier, for his part, said Spicer’s defilement of the truth, and that of his boss, has broken new ground in modern presidential communications.
“We are in uncharted territory,” said Fournier, who covered presidents from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. “I was there and saw a president lie about his affairs. I saw another president wage war over a patently false pretense. I saw another president stretch the truth about his health care policy. And now, on the first full day of his presidency, Donald Trump and Sean Spicer are going to war about the size of a crowd? Stop it. This is about as odd as it gets.”