An Exclusive Look Inside The Trump White House Press Operation
WASHINGTON — Sean Spicer is giving up alcohol for Lent.
Donald Trump’s press secretary had ashes in the shape of a smudged cross on his forehead when I walked into his West Wing office on Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, to be exact.
Spicer said he typically has a glass of wine when he gets home from work, with the color depending on what season it is. Though he won’t be drinking for the next 40 days, with a job like his, he might need it.
The 45-year-old was the longest-serving communications director for the Republican National Committee until he joined the Trump campaign in August. His new role has him treading in unfamiliar waters — being the voice for a man who already has one.
Spicer was supposed to run White House communications with transition spokesman Jason Miller, but after Miller dropped out in January, Spicer took on being both press secretary and communications director for the tumultuous administration. (The White House reportedly hired Mike Dubke as communications director in mid-February.)
But carrying the heavy load isn’t Spicer’s only problem. Anonymously sourced reports over the last 40-something days have claimed the president has been unhappy with his performance at times and doesn’t like the color of his suits.
Then on Sunday, Politico reported that Spicer called his communications staffers in for an “emergency meeting.” When they arrived, he had them drop their phones at the door for a surprise phone check. It was Spicer’s way of finding out who was leaking information. Spicer wouldn’t go into detail on his reasons for checking staffers’ phones on the record, but he said that after Politico published the story, it was he who had to inform the president about what happened.
“I obviously needed to make him aware of what had happened because the story had come out in Politico, so I wanted to make sure he had known what the circumstances were,” Spicer said.
Trump publicly criticized him for the stunt while taping an interview with “Fox and Friends” Monday, calling Spicer a “fine human being” but making it clear he would have “handled things differently.”
“I would have done it differently,” Trump told Steve Doocy. “I would have gone one on one with different people. We don’t have a major leak process here. We have a major leak process in government. I would have handled it differently than Sean, but Sean handles it his way, and I’m OK with it.”
Spicer was present for the taping.
On Ash Wednesday, Spicer sat in his office with two of his three televisions turned to Fox News and his feet propped up in a chair. He chewed multiple pieces of his favorite, Orbit cinnamon gum. It was after 3:30 p.m., but he hadn’t spoken to the president yet.
“I would say this is an outlier,” Spicer told me. “This is probably the first day. I normally talk to him a couple times in the morning, and at least a couple times in the afternoon.”
The president has never been inside of Spicer’s office.
“I don’t think he’s been to the chief of staff’s office either,” he added. “He’s walked by the office, poked his head in. You go to him. He is the president.”
“But he calls. If he’s in the residence, he’ll call. Again, it just depends on the day. There are days when I see him a lot. Normally, I see him a couple times in the morning to get the messaging straight, plus also to kind of clear up, ‘Hey this question’s popping. How and where do you see this thing?’”
Spicer said “nine times out of ten” he talks to Trump before he gives the daily briefing to reporters in the afternoon.
“I will seek his guidance on issues that I know that reporters have, that they either want clarity on or want an answer on.”
Then he “usually” circles back with Trump after the briefing, which can last anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour.
“Most of the time you’re performing the functions of a staffer,” he said. “Going in and saying, ‘Hey these people are coming in, this reporter’s coming in, there’s a pool spray. Please know that there are going to be a lot of questions about this if you wanted to lean into this answer.’ It’s staff work. Briefing him or updating sometimes, ‘Hey, I know that we were talking about this story earlier. Here’s where it has gone, here’s an issue that has popped up. It’s usually about something that is happening.”
Much like his boss, Spicer does not hide his distaste for certain journalists he believes are unfair to the administration or inaccurate in their reporting.
“I think that there are some folks at Politico that have clearly done some stuff,” he said. “There are some reporters at CNN. There are some reporters at New York Times. I’ve had my issues with NBC. Again, I think it comes down to specific reporters and specific stories.”
Spicer said that doesn’t mean he is going to stop answering their calls.
“When you are talking to millions of people a day…We have to take this message to as many places as possible,” he said. “I’ll talk to anyone who wants to be quasi-responsible.”
He said he tends not to “reward reporters” who have wronged him in the past.
“Again, that’s the difference,” he said. “If someone is writing a story about us that I know is inaccurate, it’s my job to try to get it right, or to provide that information. They may not take that information. I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we do backflips to help you out?’ but I think part of it is trying to make sure we at least steer them in the right direction.”
The praise Trump received after his speech to Congress Tuesday night caused many to believe they were seeing a new version of him, one who had softened on immigration, embraced protecting preexisting conditions, changed his mind on NATO and now wanted to condemn hate.
Spicer said people who thought there was “a new Trump” were “ridiculous.”
“I think that that’s ridiculous,” he said. “That would be ridiculous. He’s talked about condemning hate for a long time. That’s silly. He’s been very clear about who he is and what he believes. On NATO, he’s talked about — he literally talked about other countries fulfilling their financial obligations under NATO in terms of two percent of their GDP being allocated to defense. He’s talked about it in readouts of the foreign leader calls. He talked about it with network anchors before the speech. That’s something that has come up multiple times.”
“What did he shift on?” he continued. “That’s the thing. I get what the criticism is, but he has made it very clear that he can get deals that other people haven’t in the past, so if he can bring people together, consistent with his principles, to get a deal that fixes something that’s plagued this country for three decades, then great. He’s also talked about getting a deal with Russia — ‘While others have not been able to do it, I think I could be the one to get it. Maybe I can’t. Maybe I can.’ But I think he’s proven, you know you look at the airplane negotiations, in terms of the cost, people have said in the past this couldn’t be done. I think he brings a unique skill set to get things done. And he recognizes that immigration is a system that is broken, and if he can get things done, great.”
In his address Tuesday night, Trump asked lawmakers to end their “trivial fights.” His critics quickly pointed out he had called Nancy Pelosi “incompetent” just the day before, but that was after she said he’d “done nothing except put Wall Street first, make America sick again, instill fear in our immigration population in our country and make sure Russia maintains its grip on our foreign policy.”
When asked if the president would take his own advice to avoid trivial fights, Spicer said, “It depends.”
“In a lot of cases he’s responding to them,” he said. “I think he’s not one to let criticism go unanswered. I think there’s a difference between letting trivial … it depends on the definition of that and whether he’s attacked. I think part of it is, you know, picking those fights. In so many cases, he is the one who is unjustly maligned.”
If there is no “new Trump,” Spicer might need that drink sooner than April.