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After a tumultuous run in the White House, Sean Spicer is ready to talk now

July 22, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Sean Spicer, 46, served for six months as President Trump’s first press secretary. His book, “The Briefing,” has just been released. Spicer lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.

I read this book as something of a lengthy job application. You want to work for President Trump again, don’t you?

I would wholeheartedly disagree with that. I really was honored to do it, but there’s a lot of things that I’ve had the opportunity to do and I’m glad I did them, but I’ve moved on, and this was only one of them.

But you only got to do it for six months.

I mean, is that the timeline that I envisioned at the outset? No. I enjoyed my time, but from a personal and a family standpoint I have no desire to do that again.

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer resigned on July 21, six months to the day after his debut. (Meg Kelly, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

I actually think being press secretary for any president seems like a horrible job.

There’s a level of intensity and scrutiny that I tried to convey in the book. And I talk to people now who want to enter the administration in different capacities, and I’ll tell them, “I’m not discouraging you or encouraging you, but just understand that things are different now for a variety of reasons about how this may affect your personal life.” The book was able to shed a little bit of light into how I had to address the concern, criticism and intensity that went along with it.

You wrote that it wasn’t your job to have opinions about policy, and I wondered if there are policies that you could not have supported as press secretary. I’m thinking specifically about this policy of separating migrant children from their parents.

For me, issues of life would have been very important. I hope that I get across that when you’re in my job, you privately make the case about what the most effective policy and message for that policy is, but ultimately it’s up to the principals. If you don’t feel comfortable with the positions, then at some point you should move on.

Are there issues that came up that you couldn’t support?

During my tenure that was not an issue.

And how about since then?

The question is a very interesting one, but I haven’t spent any time reflecting on that. I would also say that part of the answer to that question is understanding the internal discussion and policy goals.

Have you reached a point where you can admit that Trump’s inauguration was not the largest in history?

If you want to talk about how many people were on the National Mall, sure.

I think that’s what everyone was talking about to begin with.

The easy answer is to say yes, but if you look at the statement that I actually made — and I will admit that we should have made it clearer — we should have focused on total audience size and not let people believe that we were talking about the Mall itself, I will concede that. But where has any evidence been that suggests that I’m wrong about the total population that watched it? This isn’t a partisan thing. The bottom line is that there are platforms available today that weren’t available for Obama.

True or false: Your two least favorite people when you worked at the White House were Anthony Scaramucci and Corey Lewandowski.

Well, Corey never worked at the White House. And I’ll be honest, I might have seen the guy twice or three times. And the thing with Anthony, during the campaign he was a surrogate who would do anything and go anywhere. I didn’t really have anything against Anthony personally, and to be honest I didn’t know him that well. But I don’t believe he was the most effective person for that job, nor did he have the skill set or qualifications to do that. And you’re right, that came across. But my overlap with him was only 10 days, and I have not spoken to him since then. My interaction with him was limited to that one time where he came in and gave me that faux hug that I described [in the book].

So I’m reading too much into this to think that you took great pleasure when he flamed out?

I don’t take personal pleasure in watching somebody else fail. That’s just not who I am. Because it wasn’t just about him. I thought it reflected poorly on the president and the administration. I don’t want anybody to fail, but I do think that it proved a point, if that makes sense. Anthony never did anything to me. He never came after me or said anything horrible about me. So it wasn’t like I had some personal animus towards him. I just didn’t think he would serve the president and the country in the right way.

You’re very critical of the press and reporters, and it seems like you think that you and the administration deserved no responsibility for the negative coverage you’ve received.

I would make two points. [To] some reporters, I go out of my way to point out that they do a good job. On the point of your question, I hope that’s not what comes across. I think there were some interactions that I don’t think were handled the best. So I don’t think we were without blame by any means.

The term “fake news” has become so widespread. Looking back, do you think those are dangerous words for a president or a press secretary to use?

I don’t know how many times I used it. If you’ve listened to a lot of what I’ve said over time, I’m not a fan of painting the media with a broad brush. I think it undermines actual instances of legitimate concern.

How helpful is it for the president to say it?

I think it’s more effective to call out individual reporters or stories where you have concerns.

You write touchingly about your dad and how his death affected you. What would your dad think about America in 2018?

I wrote about one interaction when my father called me after a cable hit and told me, “You’re better than that.” He was a big believer in civility and decorum and respect.

There’s an enormous chasm in America right now. What should the president do to narrow that divide?

I think he can try to be more precise in criticism so that it’s not as broad, and I think that strengthens his arguments. I think he should share more of a personal window into his thinking. Letting his personal side [show] would be very helpful. And he should try to kill them with kindness more, not necessarily always harass. But I think I have an understanding why he reacts the way that he does: He has a street fighter, brawler mentality. You hit him, he’s going to hit you back.

You’re obviously still a strong supporter of the president. Do you think he exacerbates this antagonism?

I think that both sides can help take the temperature down. I would rather see specific instances where he called out specific concerns rather than painting everything with a broad brush, because I think it makes the argument less effective. I think what I try to do is understand why he comes from the place that he does and why he acts the way he does. Obviously, that’s not my style, that’s not how I would do it. But I think that it’s because he constantly feels under attack and not given credit for achievements when they are fairly expected.

But he brings a lot of that on himself.

Right, but my point would be, you can sit back and have a discussion about where it started. I’m not an analyst in terms of when this started, but I think the president felt that over the past two years, with respect to political stuff, that there has been a constant sense of being under siege.

According to our paper’s tracking, the president has made more than 3,200 false or misleading claims since taking office. Do you agree he regularly says things that are untrue?

What’s the phrase, exaggerated hyperbole? I think that’s a phrase he’s used. There’s no question that he’s a salesman at heart, and he tends to think everything is the best and the greatest. But that’s the nature of who he is.

What’s the best advice he ever gave you?

I don’t know that I’ve really thought about that. A lot of times it’s subtle. It’s “Do this this way” or “call that person.” A lot of it is just plain marketing, and he would explain why it’s just better to do it a certain way. And you’d think about it and think, You know what, that makes a lot more sense. He never felt constrained by historical norms and protocols. It’s like his meeting with Kim [Jong Un]. He just said, “Put me in a room with Kim.” Every single secretary and deputy secretary wigs out because that’s not how it’s supposed to work. And his view is, “Great, I don’t care how it’s supposed to work. I’m going to do it my way.”

More Just Asking

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Joe Heim joined The Washington Post in 1999. He is a staff writer for the Metro section. He also writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column in the Sunday magazine.

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