Accountability Is for Non-Celebrities

Sean Spicer at the Emmys? It’s the latest illustration that members of the establishment are held to different standards.

Sean Spicer at the 69th Prime Time Emmy Awards Governors Ball in Los Angeles, California, September 17, 2017.
Sean Spicer at the 69th Prime Time Emmy Awards Governors Ball in Los Angeles, California, September 17, 2017.  (Mike Blake / Reuters )

What with all the tongue-clucking, you’d think the Emmys had invited Sean Spicer to club baby seals onstage during Sunday night’s ceremonies. Yes, Stephen Colbert gave the ex-White House press secretary a glitzy platform from which to make light of his tenure as a serial liar. But much of this year’s broadcast took a laugh-to-avoid-weeping approach to the Trump Era, and poking fun at political grotesqueries has long been Colbert’s forte. Besides, awards-show hosts are forever looking to inject a dose of subversive sizzle into these snoozefests. Remember D-list actress Stacey Dash’s cringe-inducing race-themed cameo at the 2016 Oscars? Compared to that stink bomb, Spicer’s turn was comic gold.

But that seems to have been part of the affront here, at least as the politi-rati see it. Why would Colbert and Hollywood give Spicer the chance to look self-aware, self-deprecating, almost likable? What if some viewer somewhere watched the bit and decided that Spicer is not an irredeemable sack of poo after all? Don’t the Emmys realize they’re helping him “rebrand”? How could they!?

Underlying such distress is the assumption that Spicer is otherwise on track to pay for what they regard as his myriad sins—if not against the nation as a whole, then at least against the respectable political establishment to which he has long belonged. After all, when he threw in with Trump, Spicer wasn’t some bush-league nobody like Corey Lewandowski or an outsider like Steve Bannon. He was a prominent member of the Republican old guard, with a sterling C.V. that included six years as head of communications for the Republican National Committee. Plenty of people from both teams think Spicer should have known better than to embrace and enable a president of dubious temperament and fitness for office—especially once the degree of dishonesty that would be required of him became clear. Having accepted the risks, Spicer is now expected to live with the fallout.

This made-your-bed-now-sleep-in-it attitude is not limited to Spicer. Since before Trump was sworn in, the political establishment—which disdains this president at least as much as he disdains it—has been chattering about what reputational damage this or that member of its ranks would suffer by joining team Trump. (Some veteran GOP players reportedly steered clear of the administration over just such concerns.) Trump may have been Bannon’s only ticket to power. But many assumed that for pros such as Spicer, Reince Priebus, Katie Walsh, Kellyanne Conway, and the newly hired Mercedes Schlapp, doing Trump’s bidding ultimately will harm their standing among the tribe—or, worse, their future earning potential!

Don’t count on it. While some Trump team members may prove to have committed actual crimes that carry legal consequences (absent a presidential pardon, of course), run-of-the-mill insiders who simply sell their souls for a West Wing post are unlikely to suffer long-term repercussions.

For starters, fame—even famously behaving badly and/or famously getting canned—is invaluable currency. Just ask Spicer, who, before his Emmy hit, had signed up to give big-money speeches about his time in Trumpland. Yes, the major news networks are (for now) declining to contract him as an exclusive contributor, though he may well pop-up on political roundtables or as a free-floating pundit. He is also entertaining less conventional projects, including a reality show. And lest anyone think he will be judged more harshly in more high-brow circles: Spicer has been invited by Harvard to serve as a visiting fellow in the coming academic year. (Lewandowski scored one of these Harvard plums as well.)

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh left the Trump White House in the spring. By July, she had settled snugly back in with her previous employer, the RNC. Walsh’s former boss, ex-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, has kept a low profile since leaving his post in July, prompting fun what’s-next-for-Reincey guessing games around town. Will he write a book? Follow Sean onto the speaking circuit? Start a consulting firm? Lobby? Become a political chat-show star? Few seem concerned that the former RNC chairman will wind up begging for change at the Farragut North Metro station.

Heck, even Anthony Scaramucci is moving to monetize his 10 days as the most clownish White House press secretary in history. As of Monday, the Mooch is shoveling gossip as a host of “TMZ Live”—which, to be fair, seems an ideal fit for his skill set.

No matter how huffy the establishment gets about members slumming in Trumpworld, don’t expect the holier-than-thou act to last for more than a heartbeat after said members return to the fold. Even in ordinary times, it takes a lot to get one’s establishment card revoked. And with the extraordinary Trump in the White House, getting kicked around, or kicked out, has become a badge of honor—a sign that one’s expertise, intellect, or basic competence proved too much for this painfully insecure president to stomach. Some administration folks will even get props for trying to protect the nation from Trump’s assault on democratic norms. (Back in January, who could have imagined congressional Democrats publicly defending Attorney General Jeff Sessions?)

Maybe if karma were quicker on the draw, or the gods had a slightly nastier sense of humor, Sean Spicer would spend the next few years scrubbing urinals at the National Press Club. In high-level politics, however, failure is no impediment to advancement. (Think about all those defeated pols turned filthy rich lobbyists—or pundits.) And, as Trump himself eloquently reminded everyone during last year’s campaign, accountability is only for suckers and non-celebrities.