On the night of the 2016 election, Sean Spicer took a break from celebrating Donald Trump’s victory to demand that I “eat crow.”
I was standing in the New York Hilton ballroom waiting for Trump to deliver his victory speech, when Spicer approached me out of the blue, in the full glow of triumph. His impulse to gloat was understandable—the campaign had defied the polls, humiliated the pundits, pulled off the impossible. Spicer was in the mood to dunk on a reporter, and I was in his line of sight.
The confrontation didn’t last longer than a minute, and quickly devolved into Spicer calling me “dude” in that aggressive, sputtering style that would soon be immortalized on Saturday Night Live, while he accused me of “advocating for Hillary.” When he noticed I was recording him, he abruptly ended our conversation and stomped off.
I didn’t take it personally. As a reporter, I had been working with—and getting chewed out by—Spicer for years. I’d always been struck by his strong antipathy toward both political journalism as a craft, and political journalists as a class of people. When he was at the Republican National Committee, sources tell me, he used to maintain a “bad reporters” folder in his inbox to keep track of those in the press he believed had treated him unfairly. And among D.C. reporters, it was well known that calling Spicer for comment would more likely than not require sitting through a recitation of recent journalistic sins committed by yourself and your colleagues. If the universe of Washington flacks can be divided among those who mostly like reporters and those who mostly hate them, Spicer seemed to be firmly the latter camp.
Yet, for all Spicer’s bluster, you could usually count on him to engage with your reporting. He was quick to return phone calls and get you the information you needed. He would often take issue with the premise of your questions, but he would do so on the record, in relatively quotable form. He struck a workable balance between belligerence and professionalism, and he didn’t waste your time.
In theory, this should have made Spicer the ideal press secretary for the Trump White House. A seasoned and successful communications operative who nonetheless shared the president’s contempt for the press, Spicer was as well-positioned as anyone to bridge Trump’s populist media-bashing strategy with the kind of favor-trading and access-dangling that every successful White House must engage in. Would Trump choose for his press secretary a transactional veteran with a deep rolodex of D.C. reporters, or a zealous front-line soldier willing to attack the press daily from the briefing podium? In Spicer, Trump got himself a press secretary who could do both.
It didn’t work out. On Friday, news broke that Spicer was resigning from his job—reportedly in protest over Trump’s decision to bring on Anthony Scaramucci, a Fox News soundbite-slinger and hedge-fund manager, to run White House communications.
Spicer’s fall and Scaramuccci’s rise are the latest—and perhaps most significant—signs that the Trump White House has abandoned whatever vision it once had of trying to shape press coverage through diplomacy and dealmaking, and has chosen instead to go all in with its made-for-cable-news culture war against the Fourth Estate.
Spicer’s brief tenure as press secretary will probably be remembered for his most spectacular, high-profile humiliations—the inaugural lie about the Inauguration crowd size; the “holocaust centers” meltdown—and for Melissa McCarthy’s withering impression of him. But the core failures of the Spicer-era communications shop were shaped by Trump himself.
Because the president demanded North Korean levels of message discipline, Spicer was frequently forced to make easily debunked, sky-is-green statements during White House press briefings, and then fiercely defend them against a barrage of Are you serious? pushback from reporters. The press corps expects a certain degree of spin and misdirection from press secretaries, of course—but this Orwellian display was so outlandish that Spicer’s credibility couldn’t survive it. Having lost the press corps’ trust, Spicer’s briefings became largely irrelevant beyond providing fodder for Twitter ridicule.
Meanwhile, Trump’s unpredictability and refusal to be handled made it difficult for Spicer to credibly tempt and threaten reporters with access. This is a common tool that White Houses use to create more positive media coverage, but it only works when the president empowers a gatekeeper. Trump—who hates sticking to strict schedules, and has been known to turn short meet-and-greets with reporters into long, freewheeling interviews—was never going to do that.
Spicer will be replaced by deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but it seems likely that Scaramucci—a fast-talking, telegenic figure who’s known as “Mooch” in certain New York circles—will be the one running the show. A similar shakeup recently took place on Trump’s legal team, with veteran spokesman Mark Corallo resigning, and attorney-cum-pundit Jay Sekulow becoming more visible. Rather than turning to old Washington hands to steady the ship, as many presidents before him have done, Trump is elevating outspoken on-air surrogates and leading them into battle.
Already, there are indications that Trump will measure Scaramucci’s success by his confrontations with the press. From Politico:
Trump has been enamored with Scaramucci since he managed to get a retraction from CNN on a story published in late June about his alleged Russia connections, according to a one senior administration official and one outside adviser.
"Talks about it all the time," said the outside adviser.
Trump reconnected with Scaramucci in the Oval Office shortly after and mainly talked about Scaramucci's "win" against CNN, according to a person familiar with the chat.
This is not the attitude of a president preparing for a charm offensive. Trump is looking for direct combat and ultimate domination—a performative war, fought by the most skilled performers.