Daytime drama

Trump spokesman adapts to starring role in hot seat

Jessica Wehrman
White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks to a packed room during a briefing on Thursday. Although the briefings haven't been as combative lately, they still draw an average of 4.3 million TV viewers. [Susan Walsh/The Associated Press]

WASHINGTON — These days, the hottest seat in town is one of the 49 in the White House briefing room. And one of the brightest stars of daytime TV is a relatively nondescript 46-year-old who looks more like an insurance salesman than a ratings draw.

In a White House where the news cycle lurches from topic to topic, President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer — the longtime Washington, D.C., insider who has lately become the fodder for multiple "Saturday Night Live" skits featuring comedian Melissa McCarthy — finds himself the ringmaster of a one-ring circus. Nearly every day, he fields questions from a press starving for input, clarification and explanation about the nation’s 45th president, whom both devotees and detractors will acknowledge is a president unlike any other.

That’s because there’s something to talk about every day. Trump is a news machine: Spicer has fielded questions on front-page fodder that’s run the gamut from whether former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump’s phones to the Republican alternative to Obamacare to links between Trump’s cabinet members and aides and Russia.

“People tune in to see an implosion or explosion,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. He said the briefings almost never change minds about the current White House. “People who support Trump are going to believe anything he says, and the people who oppose Trump don’t believe a thing he says.”

“It’s the same reason that people watch YouTube videos of car crashes,” said Jeff Sadosky, a GOP media strategist who has worked for Sens. Mike DeWine and Rob Portman.

Still, in just less than three months, regulars to the briefings say Spicer has largely evolved from the combative press secretary in the ill-fitting suit who lambasted the press one day after the Trump inauguration for their crowd estimates to one who’s a little more even-tempered, though with occasional flashes of peevishness.

“He’s changed his style,” said George Condon of the National Journal, a veteran D.C. reporter and native of Cleveland. “The first week he almost never called on the mainstream reporters. He went out of the way not to call on AP, Reuters, the networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post. When he did call on them, it was curt answers, he hardly ever took follow-ups.”

Now, he said, Spicer has settled in, calls on reporters from a variety of outlets and “he’s not as openly hostile.”

However, there are still flashpoints. When Spicer recently held an off-camera briefing that excluded a handful of major outlets, it became national news. Still, Condon said, Spicer has solicited advice from former press secretaries and used it.

“You find your style,” he said, acknowledging that Spicer “started out in an unfortunate way.”

Sadosky said a good press secretary serves two masters: The candidate or elected official, and the press. Success depends on pleasing both — and Spicer is facing two tough masters. Alienate one and you lose your job. Alienate the other and you lose your credibility.

He said Spicer faces an additional hurdle. Most press secretaries work to reflect their bosses’ message, serving to drive them home to the press. But message discipline is harder with Trump, whose love of Twitter means that Spicer’s “best laid plans can be blown up with 140 simple characters.”

If McCarthy’s mockery of Spicer didn’t make him a star, perhaps ratings did. His initial televised briefings beat soap operas such as “General Hospital” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” on network television in ratings, according to Nielsen data, delivering an average of 4.3 million viewers.

The contrast to the end of the Obama administration was stark, but then, there’s little news appeal in a lame duck presidency when you compare it to Trump World, where a 6 a.m. tweet can define the news cycle. There’s a crowd in the briefing room starting a half hour before the briefing begins; by the time Spicer begins reading his notes, the room is standing room only, with more people standing than there are in those coveted blue seats. It’s not a great place for the claustrophobic.

The mood is alternately jovial and combative; the scolding he offered on the first day when the White House disputed crowd estimates for the inauguration has been muted in favor of gentler tones.

And sometimes the mood is even convivial.

On one recent off-camera gaggle, Spicer fielded a question about whether he’d get ashes on his forehead for Ash Wednesday.

“I will be going to get my ashes in a little bit,” Spicer assures the reporter. “I’ll let my mom know you appreciate that.”

During that same briefing, Spicer jokes that the assembled reporters need to give up asking two questions per person for Lent. “Or at least I need to give up answering two questions,” he cracks.

A few days later, during another off-camera briefing, he accused a reporter of trying to showboat when they interrupted an answer. “You’re not on camera,” he chided. “You don’t need to jump in.”

During a briefing last week, when Spicer was asked repeatedly if he believed Obama had wiretapped Trump’s phones, he briefly betrayed a glimpse of how he views his job.

“I’m not here to speak for myself,” he said. “I’m here to speak for the president of the United States and our government.”