Among all the bizarre and abnormal things that seem to happen regularly during Donald Trump’s presidency, the spectacle of Sean Spicer grilling his former boss in the White House briefing room must be ranked as both memorable and peculiar.
On Friday, when the president called on his former White House press secretary—who currently hosts a weeknight show on Newsmax—Spicer didn’t press Trump about his actions regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic, as others did, but instead asked his reaction to the Republican senators who reportedly acted on non-public pandemic predictions to dump their stock holdings weeks before the market crash.
Trump dodged, claiming ignorance. Weirdly, he neglected to call on Spicer by name, as if forgetting that the Dancing with the Stars contestant-turned-journalist served as his chief spokesman for the rocky first six months of his administration. Spicer resigned in protest after Trump appointed Anthony Scaramucci—now a severe critic of the president—as White House communications director, a job “The Mooch” held for all of two weeks until he, too, flamed out.
Yet reporters in the room on Friday acknowledged both the validity of Spicer’s question and the oddness of the questioner.
“It obviously made for a surreal scene to have the former White House press secretary, best known for lying about Trump’s inauguration crowd size, back in the briefing room and asking totally relevant questions,” said a veteran member of the White House press corps who asked not to be further identified. “He had more credibility today asking questions than he did answering them.”
A second longtime White House correspondent told The Daily Beast: “I thought it was interesting that the president didn’t call on him by name. That question had to be asked today. It was a legitimate question… I will say it felt very surreal.”
A third White House correspondent, however, was less than amused: “Spicer has a long way to go before he has the confidence of the rest of the White House press corps. His shameful record of repeatedly lying from the podium as press secretary helped usher in an era of gaslighting the public that won’t soon be forgotten. One day in the briefing room doesn’t erase that.”
Reached by The Daily Beast as he was about to tape Friday’s installment of Spicer & Co., which he’s been hosting since early March, Spicer agreed that interrogating Trump from the back row of the briefing room was something of an out-of-body experience.
“The funny part is that we were at least six or seven questions in before anyone asked about the stocks,” Spicer said, “and that was probably the No. 1 story on the morning shows this morning and yet not one of the networks asked about it until I did.” (A White House correspondent quibbled: “If Sean Spicer had not asked that question about the senators and their stock selloffs, someone else would have.”)
Spicer added: “I thought about this yesterday when I knew this [the briefing] was happening. You know, CNN sent Sanjay Gupta the other day to a briefing and no one had a problem with that. [Gupta, an M.D. and a surgeon, functions as CNN’s medical correspondent.] The point is that I have a show. We were talking about these issues on the show today and I thought it would be great to get the president to respond to them.”
Spicer, who ran communications for the Republican National Committee before his White House stint, is not the first partisan operative to try his hand at journalism. Bill Moyers, Diane Sawyer, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos, for instance, all worked in politics before crossing over to the Fourth Estate. But Spicer is the first White House press secretary to do it so conspicuously during his ex-boss’s first term.
Since his departure from the White House, Spicer has been on the lecture circuit and did a stint last year as a special correspondent for Extra, interviewing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Spicer’s successor as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and covering the White House Correspondents Dinner after-parties. But he conceded that during his long career as a Republican operative, he’s had zero experience as a working journalist.
“But I would also argue that I’m not trying to be a reporter,” he insisted. “I went to ask questions for my show. I’m not claiming that I’m some sort of hard-hitting reporter. Newsmax has plenty of people who do that. We have a White House correspondent.”
Still, Spicer has a permanent White House media credential, a so-called “hard pass” reserved for members of the regular press corps. Spicer pointed out that when he was press secretary, he credentialed anybody from a “bonafide” news organization.
“It was definitely weird to be on the other side of the podium,” Spicer said. “But sitting on the other side of the podium, I continue to feel sympathy for anyone who has to get up there and brief, because of the nature of the questions and also the tone and frankly the lack of respect that sometimes is afforded to the folks up there. No matter what some of those folks think, he still is the president of the United States…You can ask tough, hard-hitting questions and be respectful at the same time.”
Asked his reaction to Trump’s angry eruption at NBC News’ Peter Alexander, who pushed the president over his arguably unwarranted optimism about a possible coronavirus treatment regime, Spicer said: “I think part of this has come down to tone…I’m not necessarily judging Peter’s question. I was worried about getting my question out.”
Trump accused Alexander of asking “a nasty question” and being “a terrible reporter.”
“Trump is going to push back,” Spicer said. “This isn’t anything new. It’s not like this exchange is that novel. How many times has he gone after other reporters? He’s used the word ‘nasty’ countless times. I’m not really sure why what happened today was unique.
“The beauty of this country is the media can ask whatever they want,” Spicer went on. “They can hold every level of government to the highest accountability. And yet that same right gives anyone else the right to say what they want. And no one’s gonna get jailed, and no one’s gonna get reprimanded. And no one’s gonna get punished.”