Trump White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer took the unprecedented step of calling reporters in on a Saturday afternoon in order to yell at them for covering the relatively tiny inauguration crowds, to lie about Donald Trump's inauguration crowds, and to literally scream to reporters about what they "should be" writing.
On his first full day as White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer shattered the mold with an unprecedented and abnormal performance from the podium, one which sets up an important test for the news media who cover him.
Most of the attention to Spicer’s performance is rightly about the fact that our new president sent him out to complain about coverage of his tiny inauguration crowds. Having covered the White House for six years, I can state that calling the press in on a Saturday is exceedingly rare, and usually reserved for things like a terrorist attack or news on a government shutdown.
Trump’s White House summoned reporters for a 4:30 statement, then made them wait over an hour for Spicer to appear. When he finally arrived, Spicer harangued the press over one reporter’s single, since-corrected tweet, and over what he called an intentional attempt to minimize the crowds at Trump’s inauguration, while cautioning them against comparing Trump’s crowds to the massive women’s marches that occurred Saturday.
And after rattling off some excuses and fake statistics, Spicer made this incredible declaration:
This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe. Even the New York Times printed a photograph showing a misrepresentation of the crowd in the original Tweet in their paper, which showed the full extent of the support, depth in crowd, and intensity that existed.
These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.
It is somewhat heartening that the massive women’s marches throughout the country have left such an obvious mark on Trump’s psyche; in addition to sending Spicer out on a Saturday night to rebut them, Trump also tweeted about them:
Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2017
That President Trump is so deeply insecure that he would order such a naked display of that insecurity is, however, terrifying, as are Spicer’s shouted lies from the podium on his first full day on the job.
Later, again on Trump’s orders, Spicer pivoted to Trump’s disastrous visit to CIA headquarters, which former CIA Director John Brennan called “despicable,” and tried to cast it as a success. This was yet another pack of lies, but it contained the most remarkable part of Spicer’s performance (emphasis mine):
I’d also note that it’s a shame that the CIA didn’t have a CIA Director to be with him today when he visited, because the Democrats have chosen — Senate Democrats are stalling the nomination of Mike Pompeo and playing politics with national security. That’s what you guys should be writing and covering, that this — instead of sowing division about tweets and false narratives.
The President is committed to unifying our country, and that was the focus of his inaugural address. This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging — that bringing about our nation together is making it more difficult.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable. And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well. The American people deserve better. And as long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message directly to the American people where his focus will always be.
Other White Houses have tried to shape coverage, of course, but never has a press secretary literally dictated to reporters what they “should be writing and covering,” nor ever issued that an explicit threat to the press’ access. And despite his shouting, this was no fit of pique by Spicer — he was reading this from his briefing book.
Everything about this was deeply, deeply abnormal, but Spicer’s overt declaration of war against the White House press demands an answer that we will all be able to see on Monday, at his first briefing. In an encouraging sign, the group shouted questions at him as he fled the podium Saturday, mostly about the women’s marches:
By Monday, media CEOs and newsroom chiefs will have had a chance to mull over Spicer’s threat, and we will see what posture the reporters take. Hopefully, they will remember that the American people have already spoken, and they want a free press that stands up for itself, and for them.