White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017. SHAWN THEW / EPA

White House press secretary makes an unfortunate first impression

Thousands of times, presidential press secretaries have appeared behind the podium in the White House briefing room. But never before have we witnessed a display comparable to Sean Spicer’s tantrum on Saturday.
President Donald Trump’s press secretary on Saturday slammed what he called inaccurate tweets and reporting that suggested the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was smaller than at past occasions.
Spicer, on his first full day as the president’s chief spokesperson, told reporters that the inaugural crowd only appeared smaller because Friday was “the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall.” That wasn’t true. He said security measures interfered with attendees trying to make it onto the Mall. That wasn’t true, either.

Spicer added, “All of this space [from Trump’s platform to the Washington Monument] was full when the president took the oath of office.” That wasn’t true, either.

Finally, the press secretary, with a straight face, declared, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period.” And that, of course, is quite literally unbelievable.

But even if we put aside Spicer’s unfortunate imitation of Baghdad Bob, there’s an important larger context to all of this.

Spicer showed up an hour late, upbraided reporters, whined about tweets, and lied brazenly about political trivia his boss is obsessed with. The briefing lasted a little over five minutes, and when the press secretary was done with his bizarre display, he walked away without answering a single question.

All of this on his first full day. It sets a tone for Trump’s first term: this White House is not above shamelessly lying and whatever Spicer says from that podium should not be taken at face value. On Jan. 4, Spicer said at a public event, “If you lose the respect and trust of the press corps, you’ve got nothing.”

He may regret having made such a declaration.

What’s more, the nature of Spicer’s tantrum seemed to suggest he believes he can bully reporters into submission. I don’t imagine he’ll be pleased with the results.

But hanging above all of this is the question of why in the world Spicer would embarrass himself this way in the first place. Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first press secretary, said in reference to Spicer’s bizarre display, “This is called a statement you’re told to make by the president. And you know the president is watching.”

In other words, Spicer may not have wanted to put on this cringe-worthy display, but perhaps Trump told him to, and the press secretary didn’t have much of a choice.

And on this point, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman raised an excellent point late Saturday: “The way this movie played during the campaign: Trump would order [an] aide to do battle, sometimes [with] falsehoods, to press. Then he would see that his headlines were bad because of it and tell the aide that the press hates him because they hate the aide.”

With this insight in mind, after Spicer was widely criticized for his bizarre briefing, the New York Times reported that Trump personally believed his press secretary “went too far.”

Spicer already had an unfortunate reputation for telling journalists things that weren’t true. In his first weekend as White House press secretary, his standing managed to reach new depths.