The first wave of Trump White House refugees is now landing on American shores. The instability of their former abode has already set nearly a dozen senior staffers into motion, with who knows how many more to follow. No question, many of them have suffered horrible abuse and maltreatment. But compassion must be joined to realism. Are these migrants bringing with them values consistent with our way of life?
On Wednesday night, Jimmy Kimmel interrogated one of the first of the refugees, former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer, on his ABC late-night show. It was a very gentle vetting, not “extreme" at all. And yet the encounter raised all kinds of red flags about whether these entrants will ever appreciate and accept democratic norms. As former Trump staff seek to integrate themselves into American civic and business life, it will be important to evaluate which of them can be rehabilitated—and which have compromised themselves in ways that cannot be redeemed.
The Spicer-Kimmel interview offers some important guidance, especially this core exchange:
Jimmy Kimmel: And so right off the bat, your first ever press conference, you get in there, and it’s the day after the inauguration, right?
Sean Spicer: Yes.
Kimmel: And you are charged with the job of going in front of the press and saying that the inauguration crowd was the biggest crowd ever, the biggest audience ever?
Spicer: (Chuckling) Yes I’m aware of that. I appreciate the reminder of how it went down.
Kimmel: Did the president himself—if it was up to you, would this even have been a topic?
Spicer: If it was up to me, I would have probably worn a different suit. I thought I was going in on a Saturday morning to set my office up, get the computer, make sure the emails went out …
Kimmel: And somebody told you, you need to go out there and say this?
Spicer: The president wanted to make sure the record got set straight. … Look, I said it at the time, and I believed it then, I think in all seriousness that—again—whether or not you voted for him or not, the president won the election, he faced a lot of headwinds, and I think there was a faction of people out there that didn’t want to give him the credit that he rightly deserved. I think he takes a lot of that sometimes personally. Some of us who worked very hard to get him elected felt as though a lot of folks who worked in the media in particular constantly sought to undermine the validity of that election. You have to understand it sometimes from that perspective.
Kimmel: But the validity of the election—compared to looking at photos of the crowd at an inauguration—one is this and one is THIS. Did you try to talk him out of that line of defense?
Spicer: There was a lot of us that wanted to be focused on his agenda, what he spoke about in his inaugural address. But he’s president, he made a decision …
Kimmel: So you had to go along? Even though you know, even if you know—and I’m not going to ask you to say whether you knew or not—even if you know the crowd wasn’t bigger, as press secretary you have to say that it was.
Spicer: Your job as press secretary is to represent the president’s voice, to make sure that you are articulating what he believes, his vision on policy, on issues, and other areas that he wants to articulate. Whether or not you agree or not isn’t your job. Your job is to give him advice, which is what we would do on a variety of issues, all the time. He would always listen to that advice, but ultimately he’s the president ….
Kimmel: And then you have to march out there and go, ‘Yeah, he had a bigger crowd everybody.’”
Spicer: He’s the president, he decides, that’s what you signed up to do.
That’s one interpretation of White House service: to serve the president as the president wishes to be served, to tell the lies that the president wishes to have told. Spicer is not the only Trump veteran to have that view of the job. So does his successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. So do Kellyanne Conway and the former White House staffer Sebastian Gorka. They work for the president, they follow his orders—whatever their own interior misgivings—and they say whatever he tells them he wants said, just as his attorneys and accountants do.
That’s certainly a view. But Spicer also demanded recognition and credit, not merely as a henchman of the president’s, but as a public servant.
Earlier in the interview, he had this to say.
Kimmel: Have you been harassed?
Spicer: It’s been unbelievably pleasant for the last month. People have been very, very supportive. That’s I think very helpful to know. People have come up and said, “Thank you for your service, I didn’t vote for the president, I’m not a Republican, but I appreciate you serving the country.” That gets back to what this should always be about. We have elections, they get decided, and then people of both parties should be able to serve the country.
Yet as Spicer told Kimmel: He saw himself as serving the president—the president, personally.
If he said things that were not true, and not once but repeatedly, that is justified by the president’s order. If he bullied the press and did his utmost to deceive the nation—from the nation’s own platform and at the nation’s expense—the nation has no right to complain, because he did what the president asked.
Which suggests that whatever thanks Spicer is owed, he is owed by the president, and not the nation. He was not working for you. He was working for Trump.
Almost immediately after delivering his “I was following orders” defense of lying about crowd sizes, Spicer lamented his own maltreatment by the press.
“To get up there and question on day one my integrity was not something I anticipated,” Spicer complained to Kimmel. And when Kimmel wondered whether the fact that Spicer had opened his first day—not only by lying to the members of the press but by raging at them for reporting the truth—Spicer allowed only, “It probably was not the best start, no.”
And again, he added, “It’s my job to speak on his behalf, so if you’re not speaking in the way that he wants, obviously he will correct you.”
That’s the point that needs to be underscored. Spicer had worked closely with Donald Trump from the clinching of the Republican nomination on May 3, 2016, to the convention and fall campaign, through the election and transition. He knew Trump well, knew what he was and who he was, and knew in particular that Trump habitually spoke and wrote untruths. When he accepted not merely the job of Trump press secretary, but also the definition of the job as “speaking in the way that he wants,” Spicer was signing up in advance and with full advance knowledge for a job that required lying as an essential element. Once you do that, you lose the right to get huffy about your integrity.
Very fortunately for the United States and the world, Donald Trump’s presidency is encountering more resistance than his candidacy. Trump’s slovenliness and carelessness has already blocked many of his worst schemes, including his hopes of ending sanctions against Russia and collecting licensing fees from a Trump Tower Moscow. But had things gone better, Sean Spicer would still be in the press secretary’s office, sharing in the power—and looking forward after leaving government to sharing in the proceeds. Spicer got less of both than he had hoped in the heady day when he—in his own words—“profusely thanked” President-Elect Trump for giving him the job of manipulating the media on Trump’s behalf. So now he’s trying a different plan. He’ll take himself up to Harvard’s Kennedy School, to reminisce about the challenges of his job and join panels alongside veterans of the Clinton and Reagan administrations. He will market himself on the speaking circuit as a wise Washington hand, sign consulting contracts, and perhaps after a decent interval find an executive role at a public relations firm.
In the second presidential debate of 2016, in the course of offering some thoughts on how to deal with the war in Syria and all the refugees that conflict generated, Donald Trump wondered: “How stupid is our country?” From the welcome American institutions extend to Trump refugees, we will receive an update on the answer.