Team Trump tries to steady the ship – The Hill
White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered freewheeling answers to a wide range of questions at a lengthy briefing on Monday that sought to reset his relationship with the press.
Gone was the Spicer of Saturday, who took the podium to angrily denounce reporters for their coverage of President Trump’s inauguration.
In his place was an upbeat spokesman who frequently smiled, offered a self-deprecating joke and seemed much more comfortable on the White House rostrum, even as he also signaled Trump’s desire to shake up traditions and challenge the press.Spicer’s performance, which generally won good reviews, followed a rocky weekend for the new administration. Trump visited the CIA on Saturday trying to ease tensions with the intelligence community, but he ended up arguing with the media over the size of his inauguration crowd. He also insisted the media was to blame for the tensions with intelligence agencies, which he likened to Nazis earlier this month.
Spicer compounded the problems on Saturday with an appearance in the White House press briefing room in which he refused to take questions while insisting that more people in person had watched Trump take the oath of office than any previous inauguration.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) on Monday said it amounted to a rocky start for the new government.
At his first full briefing, Spicer seemed intent on getting a fresh start.
He admitted he erred when citing Metro ridership figures for Trump’s inauguration that suggested more people came to last Friday’s event than Obama’s inaugurations.
He said he would seek to tell the truth with the press.
“Our intention’s never to lie to you,” Spicer told reporters.
At the same time, he made it clear that business as usual is over.
He gave the first questions to two conservative outlets — the New York Post and Christian Broadcasting Network — instead of the Associated Press and Reuters newswires. He also announced the creation of so-called Skype seats that will allow outside-the-Beltway reporters to participate in the briefing.
Those changes stopped short of previously floated overhauls — such as shuffling the briefing room seating chart — that would have sparked an outcry from the White House press corps.
Spicer didn’t completely back down in the fight over the size of inaugural crowds, repeating his assertion that Trump drew the largest audience of any president if online and international viewership were included.
“Sure, it was the most watched inaugural,” Spicer said.
The claim is hard to prove, given that comprehensive statistics have not been compiled and that comparisons over the different eras are difficult. There were tens of millions fewer people in the United States for former President Reagan’s inauguration, and fewer television stations to boot.
Not as much has changed since former President Obama’s inauguration, though the potential exists for much larger online audiences.
Perhaps the most revealing moments of the news conference came during a seven-minute riff between Spicer and CNN’s Jim Acosta, who had a memorable standoff earlier this month with Trump.
Spicer complained that the Trump team has repeatedly been disrespected by the news media.
“The default narrative is always negative, and it’s demoralizing,” Spicer said. “And I think that when you sit here and you realize the sacrifice the guy made, leaving a very, very successful business because he really cares about this country and he wants — despite your partisan differences, he cares about making this country better for everybody.”
The briefing mostly stuck to the issues.
Spicer proved adept at moving quickly through various policy areas, taking roughly 64 questions during the 78-minute briefing.
Even the visuals were better for Spicer, whom many said looked awkward during his Saturday statement. The lectern was lowered to give off a more commanding look, and he donned a dark suit like most of his predecessors have.
The spokesman refused to give a straight answer when asked to name the unemployment rate, which currently sits at 4.7 percent.
“He’s not focused on statistics as much as he is on whether or not the American people are doing better as a whole,” Spicer said of Trump.
He also would not definitely rule out sending U.S. troops back to Iraq to obtain the country’s oil after Trump shocked many by appearing to raise the possibility during his speech Saturday at the Central Intelligence Agency.
And he hedged when asked about Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“There’s no decisions,” Spicer said. “We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process.”
The stakes were high for Spicer, whose credibility had come into question after his appearance on Saturday, when he refused to take questions from reporters.
Spicer is a Washington veteran who was a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative during President George W. Bush’s administration. He more recently worked as a spokesman and strategist for the Republican National Committee.
After Saturday’s events, he was mentioned on “Saturday Night Live” during the “Weekend Update” skit, and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr joked about him with reporters.
CNN dubbed the Monday briefing a “career moment” for Trump’s handpicked public face. It was the most highly anticipated event in Washington; reporters began packing the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 45 minutes before it began.
And Spicer’s performance appeared to soothe the nerves of the news media and others in official Washington, who feared his Saturday scolding was a declaration of war from the Trump administration against the media.
Reporters who had known Spicer for years were surprised by Saturday. And they were generally pleased with what they got on Monday.
“This Sean Spicer is closer to the one many of us have known than the one who appeared Saturday. Just one reason that ‘briefing’ was so odd,” tweeted Matt Viser, deputy Washington bureau chief.
“Much different tone and approach from @PressSec today. And more effective,” tweeted former senior Obama adviser David Axelrod.
News reports indicated Trump was unhappy with Spicer’s Saturday appearance.
But there were no signs of tension after Monday’s briefing, when the spokesman was seated right behind the president in a camera shot of his meeting with labor union leaders.