Friday, February 10, 2017

Sean Spicer Took Questions for 23 Minutes, and he was still a disaster

At his daily briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer lived up to Melissa McCarthy's devastating spoof by spending just 23 minutes taking questions, while bungling facts and bullying reporters the entire time. Press Secretary Sean Spicer's White House briefings have quickly started to resemble Saturday Night Live's biting depiction.

While his predecessors would take questions from reporters for 45 minutes to an hour or more, Spicer has a tendency to pad his briefings with lengthy opening remarks, then spend half an hour or less taking questions, while managing to disregard facts and do his best to bully the press corps. The latest briefing was no exception.

Spicer took questions for just 23 minutes (still outpacing other recent briefings, which clocked in at 22 minutes and 16 minutes), and after the obligatory softball from a right-wing outlet, immediately began to show strain under tougher questioning.

 Asked about Kellyanne Conway's illegal promotion of Ivanka Trump's clothing line, Spicer tried to close the issue with a terse reply, but evinced rambling uncertainty about his own response (emphasis mine):
REPORTER: Questions have been raised after Kellyanne Conway did an interview, I believe it was with Fox News this morning, where she appeared to, from the confines of the Brady Briefing Room, promote the products of Ivanka Trump. Do you believe that she crossed an ethical line?

SPICER: Kellyanne has been counseled. And, that's all we're going to go with. She's been counseled on that subject, and that — that's it.
One might expect that discussion of what "we're going to go with" would be confined to the press office conference room, and not spoken aloud as a clear identifier of a PR strategy. Depressingly, this White House press corps decided it was best not to follow up on that egregious ethical and legal breach. In answering a question about another Trump tweet about America being "bogged down," Spicer either ad-libbed a major factual error, or rolled out a disturbing new talking point (emphasis mine):
The spread of it has gone, in the last eight years, has proliferated. And I think that the resources that we have to spend, this isn't a traditional war, where you're just looking at the other — you know, enemy with a uniform and saying "Here's the country we're fighting."

The proliferation of ISIS throughout this country, um, has made it so we that have to focus a lot more, on a lot more places and expend a lot more resources because it's more of a disparate approach that we have to employ, as opposed to having one country that you're facing at one time.
There have, of course, been exactly zero attacks on U.S. soil over which ISIS had operational control, or even connection. Spicer's assertion of a "proliferation of ISIS throughout this country" is without basis in fact. But it could be a window into how these things are discussed in strategy sessions, where communications can be weaponized to justify onerous policies like Trump's Muslim ban.

 Despite their limited time, reporters did take several cracks at Spicer regarding Judge Neil Gorsuch's comments about Trump attacking the judicial branch, and Spicer repeatedly reiterated the spin that Gorsuch was not talking specifically about those attacks, which ironically cuts against the narrative that Gorsuch is somehow demonstrating "independence." When a reporter tried to pin Spicer down by citing Republican Sen. Ben Sasse's (R-NE) comments that Gorsuch definitely was talking about Trump's tweets, Spicer avoided the follow-up by talking over the reporter:

REPORTER: Sean, your answer about the context doesn't make sense when you think about what Senator Ben Sasse said today, this morning on TV. He said he asked Judge Gorsuch specifically about the president's "so-called judge" tweet, and in response —

SPICER: No, this is the third time I've answered this question —

REPORTER: No, but this is a different context, Sean.

SPICER: I understand that. Phil, I've —

REPORTER: HE asked directly about that —

SPICER: I understand that. And I've said exactly what Senator Ayotte said about it. I don't know how many times you can ask me. Yeah. I understand, thank you.
Spicer steamrolling past reporters' questions is a regular feature of his briefings, one which finally saw a reporter push back during this session. But his tactic has a dual purpose: Aside from getting himself out of a quick jam, shutting down reporters trains them to self-censor, lest they lose their chance to ask questions. The reporter who yielded at this briefing was never returned to, and Spicer routinely skips other mainstream outlets from which tough questions might be asked. He also devotes a significant chunk of those briefings to softball questions from local outlets in the "Skype seats," which include the likes of right-wing radio host Dale Jackson.

Spicer may not be long for this job, which is a shame, because his ham-fisted manner, dislocation from truth and reality, and overall lack of competence make him the perfect spokesman for this administration

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