White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sparred with reporters about “fake news,” their anonymous sources and erroneous coverage of President Trump on Tuesday until, before long, he’d had enough. He abruptly left the press podium as reporters continued shouting questions.
The 30-minute televised encounter vividly portrayed the strained relations between the administration and much of the news media — a tension at the center of the latest White House efforts to shake up the staff in hopes of changing the president’s standing with the public.
Spicer’s barbs echoed the views of his boss, who blames what he considers unfair coverage by biased reporters for helping push his public approval ratings to historic lows. But Trump also blames his aides, and on Tuesday the White House announced the first of what are expected to be several staff changes — the resignation of his communications director.
Some former Trump advisors say he is right to blame those who work for him.
“This group has never been a team,” said Barry Bennett, who worked in a lobbying business with Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski for several months after the election and still has ties to staffers inside the White House.
Other political veterans, however, say the key hurdle in getting out a coherent and effective message is not the staff, but the president himself. He has routinely undercut the messages his aides have designed, often with a single tweet that overturns hours of carefully crafted White House spin. And perhaps no changes of staff can change that.
The White House announced the departure of communications director Mike Dubke amid intense speculation that other moves are afoot. In a statement, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Dubke had offered his resignation two weeks ago, before Trump left for an eight-day foreign trip, but that Dubke would stay on to help an unnamed replacement with a transition.
Spicer, who has become a household name after being mercilessly spoofed on “Saturday Night Live,” is expected to assume a diminished public role while some of Trump’s former political advisors form a so-called war room in the White House. The war room would push back more aggressively against reports about the FBI investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government, as well as against other leaks, many from inside the White House, that have embarrassed Trump since he won election.
“This is a battle,” Bennett said. “It’s going to be a slog.”
Yet even as Spicer gave his best defense Tuesday, he reinforced the common belief that the White House communications strategy starts and ends with the president, for better or worse — better, in Spicer’s telling, and not so much in many others’ view.
“Ultimately, the best messenger is the president himself,” Spicer said, in an oft-used phrase. “He’s always proven that.”
That idea, and the president’s seeming obsession with how he’s portrayed on cable television news, has forced Spicer and others who speak on Trump’s behalf to tailor their remarks to an audience of one — their boss — in a way that’s unusual for a White House.
Spicer devoted a third of Tuesday’s 30-minute briefing to recounting Trump’s trip to the Middle East and Europe in superlative terms, using the word “historic” six times, quoting an Israeli publication that credited Trump with carrying out “a semi-revolution” in Middle East policy in “the short space of three days,” and approvingly citing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, who is widely disparaged for his human rights abuses, for calling Trump a “unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.”
Even as Trump demands a steady flow of praise and positive coverage, he repeatedly has undermined his staff in ways that produce more negative attention — contradicting their explanations for critical stories, tweeting anonymously sourced articles after condemning the use of anonymous sources and seemingly confirming that Spicer and others who speak on his behalf are sometimes inaccurate.
“For a guy like Donald Trump who makes his own policy based on watching Fox News and getting this Twitter feed up, that is nearly an impossible task for a communications shop,” said Reed Galen, a Republican strategist who worked in the George W. Bush White House.
“Every single day is in cleanup mode or fire drill mode,” Galen said.
Just Tuesday, pushing back against reports of his and his associates’ ties to Russia, Trump tweeted a Fox News article that relied on an anonymous source. That made Spicer’s critique of anonymous sources during his briefing problematic, opening himself and the similarly oft-critical Trump to reporters’ suggestions of hypocrisy.
That was hardly the only time that Trump has stepped on his staff’s efforts to defend him.
And after criticism that the White House had changed its story, Trump responded in a way that further undercut his communicators: “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump tweeted.
Trump, the first elected president who had served in neither government nor the military, arrived at the White House without the usual cadre of experienced and trusted loyalists that forms an operations staff. He has run the White House like his businesses, without formal structure or deference to government norms and tradition and relying heavily on friends and family.
Even top advisors like Stephen K. Bannon and Kellyanne Conway have not known Trump for long. Many on his communications staff followed Priebus and Spicer from the Republican National Committee, where Priebus was chairman and Spicer his spokesman, and that party organization’s electoral support for Trump, an outsider who bashed the GOP, was long in question.
“It’s a hard job even when you are close to the president and have the trust of the president,” said one longtime GOP operative who spoke in the condition of anonymity to describe internal party discussions. “No one has that right now.”
All the talk of replacing staff at the White House comes as the Trump administration in general is flush with vacancies that need to be filled. But Republicans say Trump is unwilling to hire people whose loyalty he questions and some establishment figures are unwilling to join the administration.
Another political operative with ties to the president said helping him succeed requires coming to terms with the fact that Trump will not alter his style.
“Don’t think you can change things,” he said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about internal workings of the White House. “Figure out how you can make it better.”