Sean Spicer was back Tuesday, and the White House media briefing was better than ever.
President Donald Trump’s press secretary opened his first news conference since May 15 with an epic retelling of the president’s multi-stop foreign trip. Adjectives used by Spicer included “extraordinary,” “unprecedented” and “historic.”
But the real fun began when Spicer opened the session to questions. The first went to The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, who asked whether Trump knew at the time that his senior adviser, Jared Kushner, sought to create a secret communication channel with Russia in December.
“You’re asking if he approves of an action that is not a confirmed action,” Spicer replied.
Huh? The Post reported Kushner’s effort on Friday, and the White House did not deny the report or even cast doubt on it. In fact, surrogates including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway seemed to validate the report by insisting publicly over the next few days that back channels are common, appropriate and good.
Now Spicer is suggesting that the report might be inaccurate?
What happened, of course, is that earlier on Tuesday Trump tweeted a link to a Fox News report that claims Kushner did not try to set up a back channel after all. No one in Trump’s administration had made that argument before; the agreed-upon message was that back channels are totally fine.
As he has before, the president blew up the coherent message that his team had crafted and put Spicer in an impossible situation. Asked by the Daily Mail’s Francesca Chambers why Trump considers The Post report dubious but the Fox News report credible, Spicer had no answer because there is no logical consistency. The Fox News report, which carried no byline, was based on a single, unnamed source.
Later in the briefing, Spicer said Trump “is frustrated, like I am and so many others, to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong, to see quote-unquote ‘fake news.’ ”
“Could you give us an example of fake news, Sean?” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked.
“Sure,” Spicer answered. “Friday the president was having a great discussion at the G7 and somebody from the BBC and ultimately an incoming reporter for The New York Times tweeted that the president was being rude by disrespecting the Italian prime minister when, in fact, you all – in every one of the meetings that we sit in – watch the president with that one earpiece that’s been used by other presidents.”
In case you missed the earpiece episode over the long weekend, here’s the gist: The BBC’s James Landale mistakenly believed that Trump was not listening to a translation of remarks by Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni because Trump was not wearing headphones, like his fellow world leaders. Other journalists, including Shane Goldmacher, who is leaving Politico for The New York Times, retweeted Landale’s message.
It turned out, however, that Trump was wearing a small earpiece that was not easily visible. Landale was wrong.
The error proves, once again, that journalists are fallible. Yet it is telling that Spicer chose to zero in on this particular incident after airing a sweeping complaint about “narratives that are wrong.”
The key media narrative of Trump’s presidency thus far is that his team might have had inappropriate contact with Russia during and after the campaign. Individual report after individual report feeds this broad story line.
Spicer’s complaint about a British journalist’s earpiece tweet – while entirely legitimate – did not in any way address the most important media narrative of the moment. Pressed for another example, Spicer said he “didn’t come here with a list of things.”
“What I’m telling you is, is that the reason 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 ultimately don’t happen, and I think that is troubling,” he added moments later. “Thank you, guys, very much. I appreciate it.”
With that, a visibly frustrated Spicer ended his first briefing in more than two weeks after just 30 minutes, cutting the session shorter than usual.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Callum Borchers