Important questions hovered over the White House before press secretary Sean Spicer’s first official briefing on Monday, the fourth day of our new national nightmare. Among them: Would Spicer moderate Saturday’s Baghdad Bob-esque “Imperialist troops have been repulsed by the mighty Iraqi army” performance, in which he made numerous false claims about the size of the crowds at the inauguration, which earned him almost 48 hours of opprobrium and mockery? Would he try to repair the damage that Saturday’s tantrum did to his nascent relationship with the White House press corps? Would he wear a suit that fit?
An hour and 15 minutes later, we had our answers: Somewhat, meh and yes.
To the first question, I’ll give Spicer marginal credit. He managed for at least part of the time to sound less angry and hectoring than he had on Saturday. Much of the policy talk was bog-standard, hard-right Republican dogma mixed with a sprinkling of this new era’s Trumpian braggadocio and nationalism. Asked whether Trump is still planning to lower the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, Spicer said that the president “knows better than anybody how to make a great deal.” He called Trump's decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal “symbolic around the world of a new era of trade policy . . . that’s going to put American workers first and foremost.” Close your eyes and imagine a heavy Queens accent and you could have been in an arena in New Hampshire last February.
It was when Spicer abandoned the policy talk for two whiny and extended monologues that he revealed how this administration will continue trying to bend reality to avoid hurting the new president’s fragile self-esteem. In these two rants, Spicer played the victim on behalf of Trump and his staff, who find all the negative stories “demoralizing.” Trump himself is frustrated with the media’s reporting of his “lack of support” from the public, which is “undercutting” him “and this great movement he represents.”
No one should have to point out to Spicer that the president now theoretically represents all Americans, even the majority of voters who cast their ballots for his opponent. No one should have to point out to him that it is not the job of the press to feed Trump’s narcissistic delusions about his support. It is simply a fact, and not an “alternative” one, that he enters office with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in history. It is a fact that opposition to his stated policies and those of the hard-right Republicans of Congress resulted this weekend in some of the largest and most widespread protest marches seen in this country in a couple of generations, and has by some accounts invigorated liberal and leftist organizing and activism to fight these GOP positions.
But Spicer is going to try to co-opt the press into acknowledging Trump’s warped view of reality, and Monday’s briefing revealed his strategy for doing so. He will shame reporters for not being as nice to Trump as he thinks he deserves. Spicer will portray the administration as poor, put-upon sufferers of unfair media spin. He will berate members of the press for any observation, no matter how true. (“Sometimes we can disagree with the facts,” he told them Monday.) He will criticize journalists for being adversarial in any way and try to beat them into submission. He will do all of this in a whiny and defensive posture meant to show Trump’s supporters that their dreams of making America great again are being sabotaged by the terrible liberals of the White House press pool.
Early returns on this plan were mixed. Some longtime reporters and observers gave Spicer solid marks for the effort. Other White House reporters were unimpressed. The public will need much more of the latter. The policy changes already being instituted by this administration are going to hurt a lot of people, and it is not the job of the media to soft-soap that fact — that terrible word again! — for the president — no matter how much his lackeys might worry about upsetting him by letting him hear the truth.
And if you were wondering, Monday’s suit did seem to fit.