Sean Spicer: ‘I became the story too often’
Trump’s former press secretary talks regret, Republicanism, green ties and ‘The Briefing’
It has just turned noon on a weekday in Washington, and at the Trump International Hotel a black SUV glides into the side entrance. A ripple of anticipation passes through the small crowd as onlookers strain to see who is hiding behind the darkened windows, when out pops Sean Spicer.
The boyish former White House press secretary is all smiles as he bounds up the steps to the hotel. Inside he is greeted like a prodigal son, shaking hands with the staff members and beaming as he walks through the lobby.
We’re here to meet for lunch – at my suggestion. The Trump Hotel has become something of a mecca for Republican strategists and Trump officials since the election of the 45th president of the United States, bumping some of the city’s more established boltholes like the Willard Hotel down the list when it comes to go-to meeting spots and sparking outrage from ethics watchdogs.
I ask him if he comes here often. “Not so much when I was in the administration – it was tricky – but much more now,” he says, as we make our way to the hotel restaurant, which overlooks a stunning atrium.
Donald Trump has visited the restaurant several times since becoming president 18 months ago – one of the few times he has been spotted outside the White House or at official events since moving to Washington from Manhattan.
Spicer takes a quick phonecall. It’s someone from the White House. They are trying to co-ordinate with Spicer’s assistant who is delivering copies of his book. “Just make sure Potus gets a copy before he gets on the plane,” he says, using the DC shorthand for the President of the United States. “And Flotus, I want her to have one too” he adds, referring to the First Lady. “Sorry about that,” as he turns to the task at hand.
As we settle down with menus, Spicer recommends the bacon for starters – an elaborate process that involves the waiter searing raw bacon at the table. After that, it’s a healthy salad and still water for the former press secretary who is in full-on health mode as he embarks on a frenetic month-long tour to promote his new book.
He’s just off the express train from New York, where he was taking part in TV interviews for the various network chatshows. Further readings and events around the eastern seaboard await.
Spicer may be hailed as a superstar in the Trump Hotel but elsewhere he remains a controversial figure. He was heckled at a book event in New York and has been lambasted by interviewers for his role in promulgating the notion of fake news.
“It’s been a busy few months,” says Spicer, who explains the rationale behind writing the book. “It was a few months after I left the White House. I was giving speeches, interviews that I realised that in most cases people would say ‘I read a story that said you said this,’ or ‘I heard that you said that.’ I finally realised that I could either leave it up to all of these anonymous sources to talk about me, or I could tell my own story in my own words.”
Flurry of books
The result is The Briefing, a 250-page book released this week that recounts Spicer’s six months in the White House. Though the last year or so has witnessed a flurry of books on the Trump presidency – most notably Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty – this is the only memoir from someone who served in the Trump administration.
Despite the huge churn of staff at the White House there have been no kiss-and-tells. Senior officials such as Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn and Hope Hicks have largely kept their counsel since serving and leaving the Trump administration.
But Sean Spicer’s new book is unlikely to cause the President or his team too much concern – it is unfailingly positive about Donald Trump.
One line from the book, which has been widely mocked, is his description of the President as “a unicorn, riding like a unicorn over a rainbow”. At other points Spicer is less fawning and more analytical about the President’s talents.
If Spicer is unfailingly loyal to his former boss, he is more honest about himself and his own shortcomings as press secretary
“What made the Trump campaign so different was that eight times out of 10 they would break the rules and be proven right. We’d said you can’t do that, and they would do it anyways. And it would work,” he writes. It’s difficult to argue with.
But the huge problems presented by Trump’s presidency – from his aggressive, anti-immigration stance to his incendiary language and attacks against the media – loom across the pages of the book, a constant elephant in the room.
When we meet, it is just days after Trump’s widely-panned summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. What is his view on the President’s handling of the situation?
Spicer pauses. “I’m glad they made it clear what his position was, in his statements in the days after, and his interviews.
“Having been on the inside, I know that it’s easy to immediately cast judgment on things, without knowing some of the back and forth that happened behind the scenes. At the end of the day, the question is did you fix or make it clear what you were intending – I think it was made clear.”
I ask if it is a turning-point for his supporters. “No. Like so many things that affect Trump, he has faced countless obstacles, but has come back. His critics have said this a hundred times before.” He points out that Newt Gingrich – a Trump ally who described the Russian meeting as the worst mistake of Trump’s presidency – is now “back on track” after the President’s claim that he does in fact believe US intelligence that Russia interfered in the election.
Similarly, I ask him how he can stand over a president who has become the face of an immigration policy that separates children from their parents. Again, a short pause, before he effectively side steps the issue.
“I think that part of being a Republican is standing for strong borders and strong national security. I think we need to do a better job of messaging that,” he says. “Are we doing immigration the right way, are we ensuring that people are coming in at the proper point of entry, are we ensuring that children are travelling with people who are their legal guardians or parents? There is a way that we can do this better, there’s no question about it,” he says, always the consummate PR professional.
But if Spicer is consistently loyal to his former boss, he is more honest about himself and his own shortcomings as press secretary. “I became the story too often,” he says candidly, as he reflects on his time in the White House. Was he to blame for this, or was it an inevitable outcome of representing the most unconventional president in recent history when the daily White House press briefings became must-see viewing? “Some of it was timing, but some of it was me. There are a lot of things I would have loved to do over again.”
On one issue though he is consistent – he still contends that there has been too much focus by the media on the Russia investigation
Spicer’s infamous claim about the crowd sizes at Trump’s inauguration are explored in the book, as are his tense first press briefing when he stormed out of the room without taking questions.
Did the constant criticism and personal attacks, such as Melissa McCarthy’s wildly popular Saturday Night Live impersonation, hurt?
“Yes, sometimes. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge some degree of personal pain is lying. There were plenty of times I would have liked to do something again, but it’s not just how it works.”
Spicer is full of praise for his successor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “The job is to represent the President. She does that, and has successfully managed not to be the story.”
Nonetheless, Spicer shares many of his former boss’s views on the media. In his book he criticises the White House press corps “pack mentality”.
“The inability of any journalist in the briefing room to call out the bad or misleading reporting or antics of another reporter for fear of retribution is a problem,” he writes. He also says the media is “obsessed with palace intrigue instead of issues of substance, prioritising the number of clicks, viewers, and subscriptions”.
But what about the President’s relentless attacks on the free press?
He backtracks slightly: “Look, I think we shouldn’t paint anything with a broad brush – be it the media, Republicans, conservatives, what have you. It’s a much more effective strategy to highlight particular instances of concern. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are good reporters, good stories – but what we want to do is to make sure that we call out bad stories, bad narratives.”
On one issue though he is consistent – he still contends (as he has said before) that there has been too much focus by the media on the Russia investigation. This is difficult territory for the former press secretary. Like many current and former Trump officials, Spicer is widely believed to have been interviewed by the Robert Mueller team as part of the Russia investigation. He declines to discuss it.
But on the wider issue of the Russian investigation he wants to set the record straight.
“Do I think we should be doing every single thing we can to be ensuring integrity in our voting systems? Yes. Do I think we should be doing every single thing to stop Russia or any other entity from meddling in our voting? Yes. Should we condemn it? Yes. Let’s be 100 per cent crystal clear on that, and the more the White House can clarify that the better. The other issue with which I think the President is rightly frustrated is this focus on – two years later – a narrative about collusion with Russia.”
Spicer’s lengthy description of former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his central role in the Trump campaign in the book has also raised eyebrows. Manafort, who worked on Trump’s campaign for five months, is currently in jail awaiting trial. On this point, Spicer is unapologetic. He points out that Manafort is in jail for failure to register as a foreign agent for clients he had years ago – “nothing that happened in the campaign”. He says that Manafort was brought into the campaign to focus on delegates at the convention. “Manafort had worked for Ford, Dole, Reagan. He’s been involved in delegate counting and conventions going back to the 1970s. There is no question that for that task at that time he was the right man.”
Some of the most interesting passages of The Briefing are those which deal with his time at the Republican National Committee (RNC). (Though it also reveals that in his younger years, he worked for democratic Senator George Mitchell, who would later become Northern Ireland envoy.) Spicer worked for the Republican party organisation for six years, both as communications director, and chief strategist, working closely with Reince Priebus, who was tapped by Trump to become chief of staff, before being replaced by John Kelly.
He was at the heart of the organisation when Donald Trump emerged as an unlikely contender for the presidential nomination, and eventually as the Republican candidate, a relationship he charts in the book.
Eighteen months after the election, how does Spicer assess relations between establishment Republicans and Donald Trump now? Trump has publicly sparred with congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell, while respected Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham have openly criticised the President. But in recent months, most Republicans in Congress have rowed in behind him. Has Trumpism become the new Republicanism?
“To an extent, I think that the sitting president always defines the party. In the same way, there were conversations about the direction of the Democratic Party in 1992 under Bill Clinton, there was discussion of whether Obama was bringing the party further to the left, I think the president will always reflect the party which has the White House.”
He continues: “Look, the rank and file of the Republican party support Trump. That is why the party is supporting him. They’re not just following him willy-nilly. They’re following him because of the support he has. He’s got the second-highest approval among Republicans in modern history, second after George W Bush following 9/11, so you can make the case that there are a lot of elites within Washington DC that are unsure, but if you look at the rank and file of the party, they’re with him.”
As for his own future, he has set up a consultancy firm in DC and is a regular contributor to conservative channels such as Fox News. He lives in Alexandria Virginia, just outside Washington, with his wife Rebecca, a well-known public affairs professional in DC, and their two children.
Spicer is a proud Irish-American, who has spoken fondly of his Irish heritage and of William Spicer, his great-grandfather, who he said emigrated from Kinsale
Significantly Spicer has joined America First, the political action committee established to forward the Trump-Pence agenda, prompting speculation that he could be heavily involved in Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. Trump jnr and Jason Miller attended Sean Spicer’s lavish book launch party at the Trump Hotel earlier this week. If there is any residual split in the Republican party since the election of the firebrand Donald Trump, it is clear whose side Spicer is on.
He says he believes that President Trump will run again in 2020. But will he win? “Right now, if the election was held, yes,” he says, pointing to his huge support among the Republican base outside DC.
I ask him if he misses the job. “No,” he says emphatically. “I miss the people, I’m glad I did, I was honoured to do it, but it was unbelievably intense. This was after six years at the RNC which was also intense.”
There is one job he hasn’t ruled out though. Rumours surfaced a year ago, that he could be in the running to become the US ambassador to Ireland. Two candidates who were under consideration for the job have dropped out, with the result that Ireland is one of only a handful of European countries without a US ambassador.
Spicer is a proud Irish-American, who in the past has spoken fondly of his Irish heritage and of William Spicer, his great-grandfather, who he said emigrated from Kinsale. He told The Irish Times that the Corkman won a medal of honour “for extraordinary heroism” sweeping mines for the US navy in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Still, Spicer is coy when asked if he would be interested in the post of US ambassador to Ireland. “Right now, my focus is on the book tour, and my work here, but the idea of public service, serving my country is something that appeals to me. I would never rule anything out.”
He visited the US ambassador’s residence in Dublin's Phoenix Park during a recent trip to Ireland, and is due to visit the city again this month. Among the anecdotes in the book, he describes how he loaned President Trump a green tie for Enda Kenny’s visit. Whether “Ambassador” Sean Spicer is next on the agenda will ultimately be the decision for the President.
As we finish lunch and make our way back to the lobby, people start pointing and taking photographs. “I’m used to it,” he says with his trademark smile. “I was checking out of my hotel in New York this morning, this guy said to me . . . ‘Do you know who you remind me of?’” It happens all the time.”
With that, he waves goodbye and walks out the hotel door, head held high, ready for the next adventure.
The Briefing by Sean Spicer, is out now (Biteback Publishers)