Perched on a stool, his feet off the ground, Sean Spicer wore an open-collared white shirt, shiny blue jacket and dark blue jeans. He adjusted the mic. Behind him on stage was a neon sign gave the name of the venue, Pearl Street Warehouse. It could have been the start of a comedy routine at a dimly lit club.
Perhaps it was. Spicer, 46, was speaking at a launch party for his memoir, the first of the Donald Trump administration by one of its alumni. “I feel like I’m getting questions again,” the former White House press secretary said as he began a gentle onstage interview that climaxed with him squashing rumours about an appearance on Dancing with the Stars.
Say the name Sean Spicer to one American and you might get an outburst of laughter and recollections of his hapless gaffes, ill-fitting suits and Melissa McCarthy’s indelible impression of him with motorised lectern on Saturday Night Live. Say it to another and you might get a grimace along with a diagnosis of the part he played in corrupting national discourse and the concept of truth itself. A year after his sudden departure from the west wing, he remains a tragic-comic figure in a way that his ruthlessly disciplined successor, Sarah Sanders, is not.
“It’s the kind of humour you see in Armando Iannucci’s film The ***** of Stalin,” said Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington. “It’s not quite that bad – people are not getting murdered – but the willingness to self-abase in the eagerness to please the boss is the same.”
Spicer was a trusted Republican communications official when he got the call to become spokesman for the most unconventional US president of modern times. Trump’s tendency to be his own spokesman, to tweet unilaterally at all hours and to adopt a combative style honed in the world of New York tabloids would wrongfoot the most seasoned public relations operator.
Michael Caputo, a communications consultant who has known Trump for three decades, said: “I think Sean Spicer had the most difficult communications job on the planet at the most difficult possible time and availed himself very well. He handled it with aplomb.”
But five minutes was all it took to destroy Spicer’s reputation in the eyes of half the nation. On 21 January 2017, a day after Trump’s inauguration, he strode into the White House briefing room and aggressively let rip at the media: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.” This was despite evidence from photos, crowd experts, TV ratings and the Washington Metro rail network.
In the book, Spicer recalls: “Fact checkers said my pants were on fire, fashion critics mocked my light gray pinstriped suit for the way it rode up my neck, and my first appearance before the media in the press briefing room set an unfortunate precedent of a belligerent press confronted with an equally belligerent press secretary.”
He went back to his office, he writes, expecting an “attaboy” from the president. But Trump was not happy. “He didn’t like my not taking questions. He thought I was hung up on the wrong issues. He wanted to know why I hadn’t run my statement by him.”
Spicer feared he would be fired. He was not, but he did buy four new suits. “For weeks afterward, I would get emails and letters from tailors and personal stylists all looking to ‘help’. What a first day.”
At his book launch in Washington, for which some ticket packages sold for as much as $1,000, he added: “If I could get a do over, that would be it. The *** was cast on that day.”
Indeed, the following morning, White House counsel Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s use of “alternative facts”. He had laid the foundation stone of what critics have come to regard as a house of lies. A line can be drawn from the press secretary’s first statement to Trump’s chilling assertion to an audience of military veterans this week: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
“The first news conference was an important event and Sean Spicer was the spear carrier,” Cornfield said. “He went out to deny visual reality and signal to everyone that now Trump is president he’s still going be divisive, not a unifier, and there is no honeymoon. He did it in this truculent and fact-defying manner that shocked everybody. He lost everyone in the first 24 hours – that’s his legacy.”
Asked if he wants to laugh or cry at Spicer, Cornfield replied: “You want to do both.”
The dichotomy was captured perfectly at last year’s Emmy awards when Spicer, in black tie and tuxedo, made a surprise self-parodying appearance: “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world.” There, in a moment of uneasy laughter, was the duality of the times in which Trump is both clown and vandal, both the butt of late night jokes and existential threat to the republic and the world.
Spicer described Nazi extermination and concentration camps as “Holocaust centres” while referring to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. He was roundly lampooned for emerging from bushes on the White House driveway after nightfall to talk about the firing of FBI director James Comey. He reportedly stole a mini-fridge from junior officials – an allegation he takes pains to deny in his book.
Spicer’s enthusiasm for the daily briefing faded and his answers became more terse. The hiring of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director in July 2017 gave him his cue to leave. After submitting his resignation letter, he writes, “I had a strange feeling – one we get only a few times in our lives. It’s over. It’s that feeling you get when you end a relationship.”
‘Six months and I’m good’
At just six months, it was a brief romance. Spicer claims he wishes it had been longer. But an acquaintance, who does not wish to be named, said: “When he got the gig, I said to him, ‘Man, this is great. All you’ve got to do is do it for a year.’ And he goes, ‘Nah, even just six months and I’m good.’ And I was like, ‘You’re right.’
“I actually reminded him, ‘Do you remember saying that?’ ‘No, not really.’ And I go, ‘Son of a bitch, sure as hell, to the damned day it was six months.’ He laughed.”
Spicer is just one in record turnover of White House staff and few give any sign of regretting their departures. He remains employed as a navy reservist, is paid for public speeches, co-hosts a podcast and is reportedly developing a talk show with the provisional title “Sean Spicer’s Common Ground”. He pops up regularly at book launches, embassy events and other parties on the Washington circuit. There are still ridiculous interludes, for example the green and white trousers he sports on St Patrick’s Day.
At weekends he is with family, sometimes organising children’s birthday parties. He is also to be seen on the sidelines of his children’s baseball, football and lacrosse games as well as at their dance recitals and scout meetings.
His friend Ben Marchi, a healthcare business owner, said: “He has said to me that those six months in the White House, that’s time with his family he’ll never have back. So I think he’s making up for that, enjoying that, in addition to the speaking circuit.”
Marchi, 40, added: “I don’t think he misses the White House. It’s like a lot of experiences in life. You’re glad you did it. But it’s like going to VMI [Virginia Military Institute]. I’m glad I went there. I wouldn’t take a million dollars to go do it again.”
Spicer has also spent life after Trump working on the book, The Briefing, a 278-page self-justification that subjects him to the same moral reckoning as anyone else who leaves Trump’s White House – explaining why he served as an apologist and enabler for a man widely accused of racial divisiveness, sexual harassment and contempt for the truth.
Anyone hoping for a blistering, score-settling account from inside the west wing is in for a disappointment. The president is, Spicer writes without irony, “a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow”.
Sales have been slow, critics withering. Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent of ABC News, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Mr Spicer’s book is much like his tenure as press secretary: short, littered with inaccuracies and offering up one consistent theme: Mr Trump can do no wrong.”
Karl noted blunders in the book such as a reference to the author of the infamous Trump dossier as ‘Michael Steele’, who is in truth the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, not the British ex-spy Christopher Steele. Spicer refers to a White House press conference with Barack Obama in 1999 – when Bill Clinton was president.
In the Washington Post, Erik Wemple delivered this verdict: “The Briefing isn’t a political memoir, nor is it a work of recent history, nor a tell-all, not a tell-anything. Rather, it is a bumbling attempt to gaslight Americans into doubting what they have seen with their own eyes as far back as June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy and labeled Mexican immigrants as rapists, beginning a pattern of racist attacks.”
‘You have corrupted discourse for the entire world’
Spicer has also embarked on a book tour that involves interviews ranging from fawning to accusatory. On the BBC’s Newsnight, Emily Maitlis challenged him: “You have corrupted discourse for the entire world by going along with these lies.”
But others who have stood at the White House podium are reluctant to criticise Spicer. Mike McCurry, a press secretary under Clinton, said: “He had a tough assignment which was defending an indefensible boss and he did about as well as anyone could under those circumstances.
“Sean has many credentials to his credit beyond his short stint as White House press secretary and that will serve him well as he goes on with his career.”
It could be argued that Spicer’s greatest untruth was to himself. He was a foot soldier in a Republican party that was targeted by Trump’s for a hostile takeover, succumbed without much of a fight and is still trying to resolve an identity crisis. Like that debut suit, it was never going to be a snug fit.
Tish Randall, 45, who serves in the navy and has known Spicer for about 10 years, said: “I think that him being the press secretary was nothing like who he really is. The person that you saw on TV is not him at all.
“He’s super sweet. So funny, hilarious, very caring, strong in his faith. That’s a hard job; I wouldn’t want that job. That’s probably the hardest job in the cabinet. I think he just had to play the role but that’s totally not who he is at all. Whether he believed it or not, he had to do his job.”