The time to resign was on January 21, when the president demanded he tell an outrageous lie.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has left the building—resigning from his diminished position as a broken man, a subject of ridicule and derision, a political careerist without a shred of dignity left.
There may be commentators who try to find a measure of redemption for Spicer in the fact that his is one of the first genuinely newsworthy resignations from a Trump administration that will see many resignations before it is done. A lot will be made, to be sure, of the reports that Spicer’s was not a soft exit; he resigned immediately following the president’s selection of a fierce loyalist, Republican donor Anthony Scaramucci, as his new communications director. The word is that the outgoing press secretary told Trump that the new hire was a major mistake for the administration.
It’s nice that Spicer finally objected. But no one can or should imagine that this objection, or this resignation, clears Spicer. It is way too late for that.
The time for Spicer to resign was before he became an out-of-control president’s paid perjurer. During his turbulent six months in Trump’s service, Spicer turned what was once the reasonably respectable position of White House press secretary—a post held by Pierre Salinger, George Reedy, Bill Moyers, and James Brady—into a joke. Or, to be more precise, a stream of jokes. Spicer made himself and his position a punchline for late-night comics and fodder for the funniest Saturday Night Live routine of the Trump era.
Press secretaries have been irresponsible in the past. The position is a politicized one. No one denies that some of Spicer’s predecessors failed themselves and their country. But Spicer’s failure has been so epic in scope, so overwhelming in character (or lack thereof), that his name is now synonymous with prevarication.
Spicer, an experienced political communicator who arrived at the White House with some semblance of a reputation in Washington, should never have let this happen. He should have refused to become a cog in Trump’s machinery of deception and delusion.
When exactly should Spicer have resigned? Not after his star had faded to such an extent that most press-secretary duties were being handled by his deputy, a slightly steadier Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Not after he started breaking records for “pants-on-fire” claims. Not after he became the subject of Melissa McCarthy’s mockery on SNL. Spicer should have quit when Trump demanded that he start this presidency off with a spectacular lie.
But, apologists might mumble, that would have required Spicer to exit on the first full day of the Trump presidency, before Kellyanne Conway had even coined the phrase “alternative facts” to describe the press secretary’s truth-challenged pronouncements. Yes.
Trump’s presidency is, to be sure, a national embarrassment. But part of what makes it so embarrassing is the determination of Republican Party loyalists who should know better—House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and so many others—to embarrass themselves in the service of Trump. They do not merely share his shame, they extend it.
Those who lie on Trump’s behalf often do more harm than the president. They sustain the “fake news” industry that has developed to spin Trump’s reckless, lawless, and frequently dangerous words and deeds as somehow “presidential.” And they feed Trump’s ego by suggesting that partisans who were not necessarily on his team when he was coming up will support even the most unreasonable and irresponsible wrongdoing by this president.
Spicer, a veteran party apparatchik who held low-level positions in the Bush-Cheney administration and served as a spokesman and strategist for the Republican National Committee during the 2016 campaign, should have gone to the White House as an “adult in the room.” He should have been ready and willing to tell Trump when he was veering off track. And he should have refused to go off-track with the president.
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But that’s not what happened. Spicer aided and abetted Trump’s worst instincts at precisely the point when Trump needed to be told “no.”
A remarkable briefing at the close of the first full day of Trump’s presidency set the standard not just for Spicer’s tenure as press secretary but for the Trump presidency. When Spicer stepped before the cameras on January 21, 2017, he made it clear that outrageous lies would be peddled not merely by the president in his worst moments but by the administration as a whole—formally, and without apology. Trump had been sworn in a day earlier, as a commander in chief without a mandate—a candidate who lost 54 percent of the popular vote and trailed his chief opponent by close to 3 million votes. The pretender delivered an uninspired 16-minute inaugural address to an unimpressive crowd and then paraded through the streets of a capital city where 96 percent of the electorate had rejected him, and where evidence of enthusiasm for his inauguration gave new meaning to the term “modest.”
On the following morning, in the same capital city, the streets were filled by a crowd of Americans—conservatively estimated at more than a half-million—who had come to challenge the new administration’s policies toward women in particular and humanity in general. These Americans marched and rallied as part of a national (and global) outpouring of opposition to this president that was so dramatic that The Guardian headlined its report: “Women’s March on Washington overshadows Trump’s first full day in office.”
It was a nightmare scenario for the newly minted press secretary for a man whom marchers decried as a “minority president.” But a White House run by adults would have acknowledged the dissent and moved on—or simply said nothing.
But an egomaniacal president demanded an egomaniacal lie. So there stood Sean Spicer, delivering a diatribe that surely merited the application of the often-misapplied term “Orwellian.” Trump’s man declared that “Yesterday, at a time when our nation and the world was watching the peaceful transition of power and, as the President said, the transition and the balance of power from Washington to the citizens of the United States, some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting.”
The message: Don’t believe news reports that call into question the carefully constructed narrative of the new administration.
Spicer asserted, at length, that “photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall. This was the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past the grass eliminated this visual. This was also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”
It was all a lie. It may have been Trump’s lie. But Sean Spicer gave it voice, attaching whatever “legitimacy” he may have enjoyed when he arrived at the White House to absolute and unequivocal falsehood.
Spicer should have refused to abandon the truth on day one. He should have refused to begin his tenure by marking himself as a man who could not be trusted to even try to tell the truth. He should have resigned on January 21, not July 21.