It was more than an hour into White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first formal briefing to the media on Monday—a much-hyped event that dragged on so long that it resembled War and Peace (surprisingly, mostly peace)—that President Trump’s pugnacious mouthpiece called on Jim Acosta.
“First of all, congratulations—and thanks for the taking the question,” began CNN’s senior White House correspondent.
Less than two weeks ago, Spicer had threatened to toss Acosta out of a briefing in Trump Tower, where the then-president-elect refused to recognize a very persistent Acosta while insulting CNN as a “terrible organization” that disseminates “fake news.”
Trump had been enraged by a completely accurate CNN report that he learned in an intelligence briefing a few days earlier of a scandalous unverified dossier about his alleged misdeeds during a 2013 trip to Moscow.
But now Spicer—who was widely panned for his angry five-minute tirade against the Fourth Estate on Saturday, when he accused reporters of being “irresponsible and reckless” and told nutty whoppers about the size of the crowd at his boss’s inauguration, among other fibs—was hoping for a tonal reset in his relations with Washington journalists.
So Acosta got to ask his question, which addressed a mystery that has prompted collective head-scratching in the national’s capital and beyond.
“Why make this crowd-size issue something to talk about at all? Why did it bother the president that much that he felt you needed to come out here and straighten that out for us?”
And why, Acosta went on, did the brand-new president use his remarks to staffers of the Central Intelligence Agency—a critical national security organization that Trump had repeatedly belittled and compared to Nazi Germany—to complain about the media’s “dishonest” coverage of him?
Spicer’s answer was revealing. Basically, he indicated, the president and his staff had gotten their feelings hurt by the skeptical media coverage accorded to all the heroic accomplishments of the fledgling Trump White House.
“There’s this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he [Trump] has,” Spicer complained, adding the crowd-size issue was simply representative of a disturbing trend. “It’s just unbelievably frustrating when you’re told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough, you can’t win.”
Clearly wounded and aggrieved, Spicer went on in this heart-rending manner—recalling countless slights during the recently-ended campaign, lamenting the less-than-worshipful portrayals of Trump’s cabinet nominees, and the media’s “constant attempts to undermine his [the president’s] credibility and the movement he represents.”
Watching this poignant spectacle on television, one almost wanted to reach into the screen and kiss Sean’s boo-boo.
“We want have a healthy dialogue—not just with you, but with the American people,” Spicer continued. “It’s a little demoralizing to to turn on the TV day after day…”
But doesn’t that come with the territory in Washington, Acosta asked, isn’t it par for the course for any president of the United States?
“I’ve never seen it like this, Jim,” Spicer replied, adding—perhaps ominously—that “it’s a two-way street,” possibly a dark alley in which reporters might well become mugging victims (metaphorically, of course) if they obstinately refuse to accentuate the positive.
“Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, I promise you,” Spicer conceded. “But it doesn’t always have to be negative…Sometimes we do do the right things.”
Spicer kvetched on, occasionally sounding a little overwrought, but that was in stark contrast to Saturday’s ill-fated outing, in which he sometimes shouted, in a display of indignation, as he read his indictment of the media from a sheet of paper.
This time he was mostly loose, glib and frequently showed off his nice smile (occasionally an indulgent smile, sometimes a patronizing smile), and his suit jacket fit much better—not Saturday’s weird and distracting hiking-up over his neck and shoulders, as though it was a couple of sizes too large.
As White House staffers listened appreciatively from their seats against a side wall—an all-female contingent that included Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee, Hope Hicks, and (sign of the times) Omarosa Manigault—Spicer opened with a quip.
To scattered laughter, he noted that Josh Earnest, President Obama’s just-departed spokesman, had been voted the most popular White House press secretary by the assembled press corps.
“So after checking my Twitter feed,” Spicer said, a reference to the wretched reviews of his Saturday shtick, “I shot Josh an email letting him know that he can rest easy—that his title is secure for at least the next few days.”
A willingness, however grudging, to sound self-deprecating? Check.
And unlike his encounter with CNN’s Acosta, Spicer was more successful in managing the briefing’s other moment of drama—batting away a less than razor-sharp interrogation concerning his fidelity to facts by ABC News’s Jonathan Karl.
That exchange, too, came very late in a piece of political theater in which the lead actor defied White House protocol and conspicuously dissed the Washington media establishment in the front row of the jam-packed, standing-room-only briefing area by calling first on the Trump-endorsing New York Post. And then Spicer, consulting a list, took questions from a series of back-benchers like the Christian Broadcast Network and Newsmax (both outlets sympathetic to Trump) before recognizing ABC, CBS, NBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, and even Fox News.
Karl, who has a reputation for pitching hardballs, began by telling Spicer that he wanted to ask about “the nature of your job.”
All right, here it comes.
“Is it your intention always to tell the truth from that podium?” Karl prosecuted. “Will you pledge never knowingly to say anything that is not factual.”
“It is,” Spicer answered unflinchingly. “It’s an honor to do this and I believe that we have to be honest with the American people. I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out. But our intention is never to lie to you, Jonathan.”
Overlooking Spicer’s verbal tic about “disagreeing with the facts”—perhaps an unconscious homage to Conway’s now-infamous reference to “alternative facts”—the press secretary seemed nearly reasonable when he added: “There are times when you guys tweet something out or write a story, and you publish a correction. That doesn’t mean you were intentionally trying to deceive readers or the American people, does it?
“And I think we should be afforded the same opportunity. There are times when we believe something to be true or we get something from an agency, or we act in haste because the information available wasn’t complete, in our desire to communicate to the American people, and make sure you have the most complete story at the time—and we do it.
“I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts as I know them, and if we make a mistake we’ll do our best to correct it. It’s a two-way street. [That one again.] There are many mistakes that the media makes all the time. I don’t think that’s always you are intentionally lying. I think we all try to do our best job, and do it with a degree of integrity in our respective industries.”
Then Karl asked what he presumably believed was the gotcha question: “Do you have any corrections you’d like to make, or clarifications you’d like to make?”
“Sure,” Spicer answered serenely. “Ask away, Jonathan.”
There followed a down-in-the-weeds, nearly incomprehensible back and forth about Metro ridership, and Spicer’s widely-debunked claim—from Saturday—that his boss’s inauguration was the most-watched in history.
As Spicer spun through Nielsen ratings and estimates of viewership on mobile devices and tablets (including, ironically, the 16.9 million online visitors claimed by that otherwise disreputable outfit CNN) Karl seemed lost in a verbal cloud of dust.
“I don’t want to get into numbers,” he pleaded.
“Well, I do,” Spicer declared triumphantly.
Spicer was battle-ready. And this was a moment in which Karl, and indeed his colleagues in the Fourth Estate, were not.