December 15, 2017

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Critic's Notebook: Sean Spicer Is Dr. Jekyll, Not Mr. Hyde, in First “Official” White House Press Conference

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Donald Trump’s press secretary tried to make nice with reporters even while doubling down on his previous statements.

In attendance at the first “official” White House press briefing of Donald Trump’s administration were Press Secretary Sean Spicer and dozens of reporters. The only thing missing was a couples therapist.

Unlike Saturday’s impromptu appearance, in which Spicer ranted, raved, and stormed out of the room without taking any questions, this superficially resembled a traditional press conference. There were plenty of substantive questions and answers, with hard news being made. But there was also a bizarre amount of attention given by Spicer to hurt feelings. To the “constant theme to undercut the enormous support he [Trump] has.” To the “constant attempts to undermine his credibility and the movement he represents.”

“It’s a little disappointing,” Spicer lamented, putting on his best crocodile tears. “It doesn’t always have to be negative, Jim,” he said, his voice quivering. “It would be nice once in a while to hear it reported straight up,” he implored. “I’ve been doing this a long time…I’ve never seen it like this,” he added, which is at least one thing he and the press could agree on. Listening to him made you want to promise to always put the toilet seat down.

To his credit, this was the Dr. Jekyll, not the Mr. Hyde, version of Spicer. He began the proceedings with a self-deprecating reference to Saturday’s debacle, saying, “I was going to start with a little recap of the inauguration, but I think we covered that pretty well.” He also joked that he had sent a message to Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest that his position as the White House Correspondents’ Association’s most popular press secretary “is secure, at least for the next couple of days.” The effort was nice, but he shouldn’t be attempting a new career as a stand-up comedian anytime soon.

Frequently smiling and laughing, Spicer was polite to a fault. He addressed the reporters as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” He apologized for occasionally forgetting their follow-up questions. And he said things like “I’ll get to you, I promise.” (Whatever medication he was on, I want some.)

For a while, the questions concerned domestic and international issues. Until ABC’s Jonathan Karl brought up the elephant in the room. “Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium?” Karl asked, referencing the bald-faced lies Spicer had told two days earlier.

“Our intention is never to lie to you,” Spicer responded. “I think sometimes we can disagree on the facts,” he added. (Or, as Kellyanne Conway put it so memorably on Sunday’s Meet the Press, “alternative facts.”)  

“Do you have any corrections you’d like to make?” Karl inquired, sounding like a parent trying to get a child to finally come clean. Spicer proceeded to double-down on his assertions about Trump’s inauguration having the largest viewership in history, pointing out that the numbers were significantly larger when you figured in the amount of people watching “on phones and tablets.” (If Trump was watching, he was probably disappointed that Spicer didn’t throw in a reference to his massive hands.) Asked about Trump’s duplicitous comments to CIA employees, Spicer decried the “myth of a quote-unquote rift” between the president and the intelligence agencies. That Trump had likened them to Nazis, in print, was apparently a debatable point.  

Spicer also bitterly complained again about the mistaken report of the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. being removed from the Oval Office.  It was pointed out that the reporter quickly apologized, but it wasn’t good enough for Spicer, who complained that he didn’t apologize to Trump directly. (Apparently, we now have a president for whom bowing and scraping is a prerequisite to a good relationship).

Asked if Trump had a message for the millions of people who protested on Saturday, Spicer answered, “He has a healthy respect for the Firsts Amendment.” He went on to say that the president would respond to them through “deed and action” instead of “soaring rhetoric.” The addendum seemed unnecessary, since soaring rhetoric is not something anyone expects of Trump.  

During one particularly heated exchange, Spicer declared, “We’re here today. I’m going to stay as long as you like,” eliciting raucous laughter from the entire press corps.

Clearly relieved that Spicer hadn’t shown up loaded for bear, the reporters went out of their way to be courteous, several of them thanking and congratulating him. At the briefing’s end, Spicer returned the favor.

“Thank you guys, I appreciate it. This was a good first one. It’s been a pleasure.”

The rapprochement was very decorous and reassuring. How long it’s going to last is another question entirely.

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