It was the next-to-last day for Sean Spicer in his role as press secretary when I spied him a bit farther down the hall, slipping into his West Wing office. He seemed rather tense, and on any other day I’d have known better than to intrude. But this could well be my last opportunity to say goodbye, and I jumped on it.
“Sean?” I asked, peeking through the open door. “Have you got a moment?” He did.
“I’ve got 60 seconds, Jake,” came the terse reply. “What’s up?”
“I was wondering where things go from here. Do we get to keep in touch or is it goodbye forever?”
He said he’d have no problem keeping a relationship beyond the White House and that it would be fine for us to stay in touch.
That was back in August.
A half-year has passed since the changing of the guard at the office of the White House press secretary, and Spicer kept his promise to stay in touch. And as the half-anniversary of his final press briefing approached, Spicer told me he’d be delighted to discuss what the past six months had been like.
A little spoiler alert, though—he’s been engaged primarily in two activities, writing a book and telling people that he’s writing a book.
If you’ve been wondering what kind of job awaits a former White House press secretary, believe me, so has Sean Spicer. But while he still hasn’t landed the sweet media gig he’s been angling for, and while his work day likely isn’t coming close to the 16 hours he put in throughout much of his White House stint, Spicer is quick to assert that he’s been too busy to watch the daily press briefings.
“I don’t think I’ve watched a single briefing in total,” Spicer tells me, half a year after he passed along the torch to Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “If it’s on and I’m around or working, I’ll watch it. As you know, it’s not on at a regular time. So if it’s on I’ll tune in, depending on the news of the day, just to keep up to speed, but it’s a very different dynamic.”
I note the word “working.” What kind of work is he involved in? Besides writing his book, that is.
“I’ve got a lot of speaking engagements. I travel around the country, and I’ve got some consulting projects on the side.”
It was actually during a recent speaking engagement at Harvard that the topic of the relationship between the press secretary and the press corps came up. As was reported by the Huffington Post, Spicer was quoted as having told students, “Reporters had the chance to go and knock on my door and see me anytime, but they would only ask questions during the White House press briefing so they could be on camera. They could have asked me at any other time of the day.”
I read the quote back to him and asked that he clarify what he meant, especially as I knew many reporters who knocked on his door at all times of the day, armed with questions for every occasion.
“That was not an accurate representation of what I said. That was some anonymous student saying what I said.”
Um, okay. So what did he tell those students?
“There was an overall discussion about the briefing and the media’s behavior. The broader point I was making to those students was that there are a lot of reporters whom I knew were there all day and I’d say—wait a second, I haven’t seen this person, they haven’t called, they haven’t emailed, they haven’t stopped by the office, and yet the second the lights to the briefing room came on, somehow [their question] was like the biggest deal in the world. You recognized that it wasn’t so much journalism in the sense that ‘I need a question answered, I need some more information’; it was more about getting something on camera than anything else.”
And how was this different from the way press briefings were held in the past? Was there a time when reporters weren’t trying to get something on camera?
“In the past they didn’t even broadcast them,” Spicer declared with an unmistakable air of pride. “The cable outlets didn’t broadcast the Obama briefings the way they do now. It’s not even close to the level of interest. The numbers weren’t there, the views weren’t there. I don’t think it’s even in dispute that the dynamic has changed.
So was he saying that along with the territory of these high ratings came reporters who wanted little more than to promote themselves?
“The point is, if a journalist’s goal is to say, ‘I’m writing this story’ or ‘I’m looking to get information on this policy,’ if that’s really the goal, why are you waiting in some cases six, seven hours to ask the question? The answer is clearly that the only way they want it asked is during a briefing, as opposed to all morning long or early afternoon.”
But what about those reporters who claim they showed up at the office of the press secretary many times and Spicer was never accessible to them? I made sure to highlight my appreciation for the fact that I personally had no such complaint, but at the same time there was no denying that there were others who never seemed to have the opportunity to get through to him.
“The point that I’m getting at is that I was having a conversation with a bunch of students off the record about how the process works. I didn’t say I was available every single day. I didn’t say no one ever stopped by. I said that what I found interesting is that on most days, from 8 a.m. until the briefing, you would not hear about a certain thing from any reporter, and then they’d wait. I would be, like, wait a second, the entire press staff is available all day, not just me. I can’t be everywhere all the time. I wasn’t by any means insinuating I was available 24/7 and always accessible. It is literally like you saying, ‘I’m not hungry; I don’t want to go to lunch,’ and me saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, Jake never eats.’”
Granted, being available 24/7 is an unrealistic expectation, to say the least. It is for this reason that a press secretary has a staff of deputies and assistants to absorb much of the workload. Naturally, it must have been frustrating for Spicer to be serving as both the press secretary and communications director at times when both offices were greatly understaffed. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that he’d have had a better shot at keeping the job if those positions had been filled?
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Spicer answered diplomatically, “I think we could have configured things a little differently and some openings could have been filled.”
I pressed on, noting that there were offices and work stations for the press secretary’s staff that were occupied now that had remained empty throughout much of his tenure. And this was besides the fact that there were more reporters covering the White House in the first months of Trump’s presidency than at any other point.
But Spicer remained determined to sidestep the question.
“I don’t know. Obviously it was a new team, and so I think a lot of gelling could’ve happened, but I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that.”
What did he miss most about the job?
“The people,” he answered abruptly.
“Which people?” I asked.
“I had a great team to work with, both in the press and communications offices, and then everyone from the resident staff to the folks in the Navy mass, to a lot of the permanent staff—they were just great people. The Secret Service and officers who manned a lot of the outposts and the entrances were just great people and dedicated public servants. I enjoyed working with them and interacting with them.”
Had he interacted with any of these people since?
“With some of them I have and some of them I haven’t. I’ve seen folks from my team a bunch of times, but a lot of people—the guys who do the IT support are really top-notch professionals—I haven’t seen any of them. I’ve seen the [deputy and assistant press secretaries], but there’s a difference between seeing someone occasionally and on a day-to-day basis. They’re great people and they’re fun and I miss, to some degree, the daily interaction.”
Did his old staff still consult with him?
“A lot of us go back a long way, and we enjoy catching up,” he answered vaguely, ”but I’m not gonna get into any of those discussions.”
At least he should be given credit for consistency. Seems like his adeptness at avoiding answers to certain questions hadn’t come to an end along with his time at the White House.
I could not help but think back to the earliest days of the Trump presidency, when there was a nagging sense that Sean Spicer’s job was already on the line. And while rumors of his dismissal had started in the very first week, I hadn’t been coming across any credible reports that suggested the same thing about Sarah, Spicer’s successor.
I tried asking him where he believed things had gone wrong and where the point of no return was. But to my dismay, he repeatedly dismissed such questions and told me to wait for his book, which isn’t due out before late July. Many of the pages, he maintained, would address this very question.
I asked him if he could narrow matters down to any single, defining moment when he knew it was pretty much over. He suggested that his dismissal had been inevitable all along.
“I think from the first couple of press conferences it was very clear that things had changed. There was going to be a new dynamic that hadn’t existed before, and a level of intensity that had never been seen before either.”
Taking note of the fact that as of this week Sarah H. Sanders had surpassed Spicer in the overall number of press briefings (Spicer gave 56, according to my math), I asked what she managed to do differently that enabled her to retain her position.
“I think she’s done a really, really great job. I think she really looked at the first six, seven months and really understood the lay of the land, so when she stepped up to the podium, she was ready. It wasn’t just dealing with the press; she had developed a really strong relationship with the president and understood how to effectively navigate that relationship as well.”
So would Spicer have done things differently, knowing what he now knew? And if yes, what?
“Oh, absolutely. Just in terms of both sides—actually three sides, with our staff, with the president, and with the media—there are definitely things that I’d have done differently, there’s no question about it.”
Spicer stopped short.
“Go on,” I prodded, “I’m listening.” I made it clear that I wished he’d provide specific details.
“That’s why you write a book,” he defaulted, “being able to walk through those scenarios and explain to people what the atmosphere was, what was said and not said, and what was misinterpreted.”
“I see you’re still sticking to your talking points, Sean,” I charged.
“No. I’m promoting a book, Jake.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course,” I jumped in.
“Look. I’ve been out traveling the country, and I get a lot of questions about where I came from, what happened during the campaign, what was happening behind the scenes at certain events. It was a very historic time, and the goal is to really have a long-form platform to share that.”
I asked Spicer which of the president’s accomplishments he had a hand in but didn’t get the credit he felt he deserved.
“I don’t think it’s ever been about credit, but I was very proud to play a role early on and help organize the internal effort to get the messaging and strategy on tax reform right.”
I asked Spicer how he changed the dynamic of the White House press corps. One thing he was proud of was the inclusion of media outlets that had previously not been granted access to cover the White House.
“We tried to make sure to bring in media reporters and outlets that may not have had the same level of participation in past administrations. I think we understand that every one of them represents a constituency or readership or viewership that’s important to that outlet. And we’ve tried to involve a lot more people in a lot of ways.”
So what role, if any, did Sean Spicer play in getting Ami accredited to cover the White House? Who knows? I would have asked him, but I had a distinct feeling that he’d just smile and tell me to wait for the book to come out.
Or perhaps he’d have to wait for my book to come out.