To most observers, President Trump’s first overseas trip was either a moderate success that was at times overshadowed by viral GIFs or a disaster that damaged the United States’ relationships with longtime European allies.
But as Trump and his aides tell it, this was the most successful, most historic, most well-received foreign trip ever embarked on by a U.S. president.
“It truly was an extraordinary week for America and our people,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday afternoon as he kicked off a gushing recap to reporters that lasted roughly nine minutes and featured the word “historic” a half-dozen times.
Spicer channeled his boss as he declared that Trump’s speech to leaders of more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations “was a historic turning point that people will be talking about for years to come” and “was met with nearly universal praise.” He claimed that the president single-handedly “united the civilized world in the fight against terrorism and extremism” and that his meetings at the Group of Seven summit in Sicily “were marked by outstanding success.”
“We’ve never seen before at this point in a presidency such sweeping reassurance of American interests and the inauguration of a foreign policy strategy designed to bring back the world from growing dangers and perpetual disasters brought on by years of failed leadership,” Spicer said.
Trump’s aides often exaggerate on his behalf — such as when Spicer insisted in January that the president’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever — but Tuesday’s monologue seemed to venture into new territory for even the Trump administration.
Spicer’s press room paean to his boss prompted rounds of mocking and alarm on Twitter and from cable-news pundits, some of whom compared this breathless praise to North Korean propaganda promoting the Dear Leader.
But Spicer isn’t the only White House staffer lavishing praise on Trump.
Over the weekend, White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn — who was the second-in-command at Goldman Sachs before joining the White House — declared the president’s economic development deal with Saudi Arabia to be unlike anything he had seen in his 30 years in business. And Hope Hicks defended the president against accusations that he demeans his staff, issuing a lengthy statement for The Washington Post that read, in part: “President Trump has a magnetic personality and exudes positive energy, which is infectious to those around him. He has an unparalleled ability to communicate with people. . . . He is brilliant with a great sense of humor.”
It is no secret that the president has been unhappy with his media operation — communications director Mike Dubke announced Tuesday that he is stepping down, and there are reports that Spicer’s role could soon be reduced — and these Trumpian comments seem to indicate that his staff is now directly passing along the president’s thoughts without any vetting or editing.
“Ultimately, the best messenger is the president himself,” Spicer said at the briefing. “He’s always proven that he is the best messenger — not just for what he wants to articulate, but that the American people resoundingly chose him as their president because he understands the frustrations and concerns and values of the American people. And he is probably the best person to communicate that.”
But this approach often forces aides to make outlandish claims that simply draw attention to the weak points of Trump’s trip or time in office instead of the highlights, said Mike Murphy, a longtime GOP consultant who ran the political action committee for Jeb Bush’s failed presidential campaign. He compared the exaggerations to North Korean propaganda.
“It’s insecure, over-the-top,” Murphy said. “I call it Great Leader-esque.”
Tommy Vietor, who was a spokesman for President Barack Obama, said former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs once gave him this advice: “The first rule of spin is that it has to be believable.”
The claims coming from Trump’s spokespeople just are not, and saying the words out loud makes Spicer, and others, “look like an idiot,” Vietor said.
“It’s baffling, because it doesn’t convince anyone. It doesn’t serve anyone to insist that black is white, that down is up, or that Donald Trump is this warm and fuzzy guy,” Vietor said, referring to Hicks’s statement. “I mean, his tag line is: ‘You’re fired.’ ”
Spicer’s deference to the president continued as he took questions from reporters on Tuesday.
On the search for a new FBI director, Spicer said: “The president is the ultimate decision-maker. When he makes a decision as to who he believes is best to lead the FBI, he will let us know.”
On concerns that the relationship with Germany has become strained, as expressed in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks suggesting that Europe cannot rely as much on the United States as it once did: “I think the relationship that the president has had with Merkel, he would describe as fairly unbelievable. They get along very well.”
On whether the president has been meeting with lawyers to discuss the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia: “The president has a lot of meetings. If the president has a decision on anything, we’ll be sure to let you know.”
On the president’s position on climate change: “I can’t say. I haven’t asked him. I can get back to you. I don’t know. I honestly haven’t asked him that specific question.”
As the discussion shifted to how Trump is communicating with the country, the press secretary insisted that the president is “very pleased with the work of his staff” and denounced “fake news.”
This brought protests from reporters seeking examples of “fake news” and a back-and-forth with Spicer that seemed to leave no one in the room satisfied.
“The reason that the president is frustrated is because there’s a perpetuation of false narratives, a use of unnamed sources over and over again about things that are happening that don’t ultimately happen,” Spicer said, “and I think that is troubling.”
He then ended the briefing.