World·Analysis

Sean Spicer is off to a rocky start in speaking for Trump

Sean Spicer has been White House press secretary for less than a month, but his aggressive style and rocky start have provoked journalists and inspired comedians.

Combative White House press secretary's battles with journalists create fodder for satire

Sean Spicer, White House press secretary for U.S. President Donald Trump, gives his daily briefing to a packed room on Wednesday. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

When Sean Spicer took on one of the most challenging jobs in Washington — White House press secretary for U.S. President Donald Trump — he likely never imagined that within weeks he would be lampooned on Saturday Night Live, portrayed by no less than comedic actress Melissa McCarthy.

Her sketch that aired last weekend impersonated Spicer giving the daily White House briefing and mocked his incessant gum-chewing, twisting of words and aggressive style. At one point McCarthy picked up the podium and shoved it into a journalist. 

Despite the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it wasn't pretty.

Spicer, already well-known in Washington from his many years of working in politics and generally well-liked, had been introduced to the nation as a punchline. 

Even though he has been press secretary for less than a month, SNL had plenty of material to work with when it decided to do a takedown of Spicer.
Press secretary was asked why the U.S president would tweet about his daughter's business and not the mosque attack in Quebec 1:01

He got off to a rocky start literally on Day One. It was Trump's first full day as president, Jan. 21, and Spicer called journalists into the briefing room to berate them about their coverage of the size of the inauguration ceremony crowd the day before.

He angrily attempted to shame them, and in doing so, made a number of misleading or plain wrong statements. He bolted out of the room without taking questions. 

The next day Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer in an interview by saying he used "alternative facts." That set off a whole new round of negative press for the White House.

Spicer's dream job 

There have been more bumps along the road as Spicer tries to navigate his new role, one that friends have told reporters is his dream job. Being a White House press secretary is grueling for whoever is doing it, but Spicer is under extra intense pressure.

The mood has gotten much more hostile.— Paul Brandus, Washington journalist

Trump reportedly watches the briefings and rates Spicer's performance. There have been leaks out of the White House that he isn't happy with it so far, regrets hiring him and that he's even critiqued Spicer's suits. Politico reported that Trump was not amused by the SNL spoof, especially because Spicer was played by a woman.

Spicer's job is to stand in front of reporters every day and speak on behalf of the president. 

He has to defend Trump's decisions and tweets or whatever is prompting controversy, and he's asked for a reaction to a wide range of policy issues, which in theory he should be up to speed on, but in these early days that can be a challenge.

He works for a president who views the "dishonest media" as an enemy. He needs to look tough with them for his boss but also must have a functional relationship with them.
It's standing room only for reporters covering Wednesday's briefing. The seats are assigned by the White House Correspondents' Association. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

This week demonstrated how Spicer is struggling to find that balance.

Wednesday's briefing was relatively uneventful. It started on time, there was some lighthearted banter, some laughs and no scolding, and it went on for nearly an hour, a decent amount of time. 

Thursday was a whole different story. Spicer was in a combative mood. He was annoyed by certain lines of questioning, he ignored attempted followups and repeatedly cut off reporters.

When a reporter tried to ask why Trump tweeted about Nordstrom dropping his daughter's clothing line but has tweeted nothing about the Quebec City mosque attack, Spicer was having none of it.

'This is silly. Next.'

"This is silly. Next," he shot back and called on another reporter.

It was almost like Spicer was portraying McCarthy portraying him, except without her water gun and stuffed animal props. 

It was the kind of Spicer reporters in the White House are seeing more often than not, according to Paul Brandus, who writes for the independent website West Wing Reports and is a contributor on CBC panels. 

"The mood has gotten much more hostile," he said, comparing the briefings now to the ones with President Barack Obama's last press secretary, Josh Earnest. 

As Brandus stood along the wall of the small briefing room on Wednesday waiting for Spicer to come in, he said the antagonism is perhaps a reflection of his boss.

"We're alleged distributors of fake news and this and that. That's the attitude and I think it comes through in these briefings," said Brandus. 
Richard Latendresse, a reporter with Quebec's TVA network, stands outside the White House press briefing room on Wednesday. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Richard Latendresse, a Canadian correspondent with Quebec's TVA network, said it's clear the White House is still getting organized, and he cuts Spicer some slack for not knowing everything about everything. But Latendresse, who has covered the White House for more than a decade, said one important thing is clearly missing, and that's a personal relationship between Trump and Spicer.

"Sean, I don't feel that he has the connection that Josh Earnest had with the president, a closeness that he had," Latendresse said after Wednesday's briefing wrapped up. "It matters."

Sometimes a press secretary is limited in what he can say, but if he can share the mood in the Oval Office, the perspective of the president, then he's still giving reporters something to go on, said Latendresse.

Answers 'are not complete enough'

"Sean is not going there, which frustrates a lot of us, because I think his answers are not complete enough," he said. 

That being said, Latendresse still describes the daily press briefing as a valuable exercise. There is no equivalent in Ottawa for Parliament Hill reporters. 

Having access every day to a spokesperson for the country's leader is useful, and it forces the administration to take a position on an issue and be ready with something to say about it, he said. 

It's also worthwhile to be around reporters from all kinds of media outlets from around the country and the world. Much can be learned from your colleagues too, not just from the press secretary, Latendresse added.

"I think this is precious," he said.

Spicer may not view it the same way, given how the first few weeks have gone.

Chris Cillizza, who writes a politics blog for the Washington Post, recently wrote an entry titled "Why you should pity Sean Spicer."

"He's the one with the worst job in Washington," it concluded.

Late-night comedy rushes into Trump era

About the Author

Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitz_meagan

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