Sean Spicer(Credit: Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
It would be fair to say that White House press secretary Sean Spicer has yet to get through one week without a major gaffe. In fact from the very moment that he began his job, Spicer has left former press secretaries scratching their heads in confusion.
Recall that Spicer used his first briefing to insist that Donald Trump’s inauguration as president had drawn the largest crowds in history — “period.” He then chastised the press for biased reporting and closed by refusing to take questions from the journalists present. That behavior led former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who had served in the administration of President George W. Bush, to tweet that he was “uncomfortable and concerned” by Spicer’s first presser.
And that was only the beginning. Spicer alternates between offering the White House press corps gibberish, outright lies and propaganda. He consistently has trouble pronouncing words. He often can barely contain his utter contempt and restrain his anger toward his counterparts.
And that’s not even touching on his bizarre references to Adolf Hitler as a moderate and to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.”
Now as we finish off the final stretch of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days, many of us have been wondering why Spicer still has a job. He is not only an embarrassment to our nation; he has actually tarnished the reputation of a president who has no trouble looking like a fool all by himself.
Back when Melissa McCarthy first did her scathing impression of Spicer for “Saturday Night Live,” there were rumors that the impersonation had so thoroughly humiliated Trump that he considered firing Spicer. Politico reported, “More than being lampooned as a press secretary who makes up facts, it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president’s eyes, according to sources close to him.”
But we now know why Trump has no plans to replace Spicer and that’s because he is doing exactly what Trump wants him to do. Spicer isn’t fighting with the news; he’s redefining it.
As The Washington Post reported, when Trump was asked last month whether he had plans to dismiss Spicer, the president’s response was unequivocal. “I’m not firing Sean Spicer,” he said, according to someone familiar with the encounter. “That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.” The Post then explained that Trump even likened Spicer’s daily news briefings to a daytime soap opera, noting proudly that his press secretary attracted nearly as many viewers as one would.
As GQ put it, Trump is keeping Spicer for the “dumbest, Trumpiest reason ever.”
While there is little question that the decision to retain Spicer is a classic Trump move, it is a mistake to read this as dumb. It is all part of a larger strategy used by Trump and his team since well before the election.
From Kellyanne Conway to Spicer, what Trump has amassed are not neutral conduits for his platform and policy. What he has done is create an entertaining cast. Each one of the characters has his or her own role on the show.
They don’t just report the story; they are the story.
In the early days when Conway appeared on CNN or Spicer held a briefing, it was tempting to read their combative attitudes and arsenal of alt-facts as signs of the way that Trump wanted to wage war on a free press. But this is not the typical sparring that goes on between a White House administration and the press reporting on it.
I heard one suggestion from a Washington insider that it often seems like Spicer is performing for Trump, that Trump is his target audience. But now in light of Trump’s comments about Spicer’s ratings, that view seems wrong as well.
Trump isn’t the audience; he is the studio exec. We have been referring to Trump as the first reality-TV president, but have we really been processing what that means for the press?
There have been multiple signs that Trump is not simply delusional, bombastic and megalomaniacal. Trump may have those traits to alarming degrees, but they aren’t exactly new characteristics for a world leader. It is worth remembering, too, that President Ronald Reagan had his own media celebrity. So Trump isn’t the first “actor” we have elected either.