To the surprise of no one, Sean Spicer resigned as White House Press Secretary on Friday. The rumors he was “out” had been swirling for months. The press — even traditionally conservative press — thought he was out of his depth at best, and a liar at worst. While the political eulogies haven’t been written yet, it’s likely he’ll be blamed, at least in part, for President Trump’s historically low approval rating.
He deserves none of the blame. He played a poor hand as well as he possibly could. Until the president becomes more disciplined in his actions and his statements, no Press Secretary or Communications Director will succeed in this administration.
Let’s start with the first attack on Spicer, that he was incompetent, prone to silly slips of the tongue or outright offensive lies. He did say some unsettling things — but, as I’ve argued, those slip ups were almost always timed when the president had said something worse immediately beforehand. Spicer repeatedly sacrificed his own reputation to save his president from embarrassing storylines. He served as a lightning rod.
Remember Spicer’s false claim that the Obama administration used British intelligence to surveil then-candidate Trump? That came immediately following President Trump’s ill-thought out claim that the Obama administration had tapped his phone. The press forgot about President Trump’s mistake so they could pile on Spicer’s.
Or remember the poorly-executed rollout of the Travel Ban, when even fellow Republicans were remarking on the administration’s early incompetence? Spicer got up onstage to yell at and mock reporters with “facts” that turned out to be false. This performance ended up as the basis for countless mockeries of Spicer. But the media’s attention left the Travel Ban, at least for a little while.
Spicer showed remarkable self-sacrifice, and the White House will miss it once it’s gone.
He fought hard for the White House in other ways, too. He was aggressive in fighting a press that the White House views as relentlessly hostile. He started taking Skype-questions from non-traditional news outlets, setting a precedent that will allow the administration to start getting more favorable coverage from right-leaning outlets.
The administration’s dire straits are not Spicer’s fault — indeed, he was able to salvage the administration’s reputation to some extent.
The sad truth for this White House is that no communications professional will succeed until the president develops discipline in what he says and when he says it. If he gives off-the-cuff interviews to The New York Times where he says he shouldn’t have appointed Jeff Sessions Attorney General, that will dominate the conversation in America, and make him look disloyal in the process.
If he calls his own healthcare bill “mean,” he won’t be able to get Republican senators to take a tough vote for it.
If he attacks a morning show host for a non-existent facelift, he looks petty at best, and alienates even his supporters.
There is no press secretary who can make that look good, and President Trump — and conservatives in general — need to temper their expectations of new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.
This situation isn’t entirely hopeless. President Trump has been an effective communicator in the past, and it is possible he could develop discipline. Until he does, however, we can expect the White House to lurch from scandal to scandal.
Spicer never had a chance to prevent the White House’s predicament. He did as well as he could given the circumstances. He did not deserve to be the scapegoat.
Neal Urwitz is the Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a defense and national security think tank in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in media and congressional relations, having also worked for Fortune 500 companies on crisis communications and policy matters. He writes regular commentaries on the state of media in America. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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