Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Trump tortured Spicer and Priebus. Now they get to tell investigators about Trump.

By Aaron Blake

September 8, 2017 at 5:41 PM

Then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer, left, and then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in May. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are among six current and former White House aides with whom special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is likely to seek interviews in his Russia investigation, as The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig, Rosalind S. Helderman and Ashley Parker report.

The fact that top Trump aides would be interviewed isn't hugely surprising. The probe has gradually grown in scope in recent months, and given its apparent focus on President Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, it seemed logical that his top spokesman and aide, among others, would be sought out for their versions of events.

But the subplots with Spicer and Priebus are particularly interesting.

Both are former Republican National Committee types — not longtime Trump aides — who joined the White House when the campaign was over. Both are also now former aides, having lasted just seven months. And perhaps most notably, both were practically tortured during their time in the White House, directly by Trump or apparently with his blessing.

Spicer resigned after Trump went against his and Priebus's wishes by tapping Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director. And from literally his first full day as White House press secretary — when Trump dispatched Spicer to deliver obvious falsehoods about Trump's inauguration crowd — he seemed to put Spicer in about as many awkward situations as humanly possible. He even seemed to enjoy watching Spicer squirm and contort himself, remarking that he wouldn't fire Spicer, because he got "great ratings" on TV.

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Donald Trump Jr. testified behind closed doors before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 7 about his meeting with a Russian lawyer in the summer of 2016. (Reuters)

Here's a recap of the things Trump made Spicer defend that I put together when he resigned:

There was the inauguration crowds incident. There was the time he took issue with calling Trump's travel ban a "ban," despite the White House having repeatedly referred to it as such. There was the time he insisted Trump's tweeting of the clearly misspelled word "covfefe" was actually intentional and "a small group of people know exactly what he meant." There was the time he said Trump doesn't have a bathrobe — only to find plenty of past photographic evidence of Trump's affinity for them. There was the time he suggested the former head of Trump's campaign "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time." And on and on and on.

Oh, and that doesn't even include when Spicer awkwardly explained that Trump had fired Comey at the recommendation of the Justice Department, which got the ball rolling on its own. Shortly thereafter, Trump blurted out in an NBC News interview that he was going to fire Comey regardless and cited the Russia investigation as being on his mind. You can bet this sequence will be a focus for investigators; it also happened to make Spicer look like a fool.

While Spicer's torture was more public, Priebus got a heavy helping of it, too — particularly in the brief period when Scaramucci came on board, during which Priebus exited. Not only had Priebus opposed the move, but Scaramucci proceeded to call into CNN and publicly attack Priebus, accusing him of leaking information and challenging him to prove that he wasn't. Trump apparently signed off on the appearance, with Scaramucci saying he had just spoken with the president before calling in.

Later that day, the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza published that foul-mouthed interview with Scaramucci, in which Scaramucci called Priebus a "paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac," and accused him of "cock-blocking" Scaramucci's hiring. He also acknowledged in the interview that he was going to send a suggestive tweet about Priebus being a leaker to mess with him.

And there were other examples, as New York magazine's Jonathan Chait recapped:

Now, the Washington Post reveals Trump ordered Priebus to kill a fly. ("As the fly continued to circle, Trump summoned his chief of staff and tasked him with killing the insect, according to someone familiar with the incident.")

Priebus was apparently the most frequent target of Trump's habitual bullying. The president "told associates that Priebus would make a good car salesman" and "mocked him for expressing excitement when he spotted his house from Air Force One, flying over Wisconsin," reports Politico.

None of this is to suggest either is bent on revenge or anything like that. And a witness is always compelled to tell the truth to investigators, so any lingering hard feelings toward the president may not even affect their responses. We also don't know exactly how those interviews will be conducted yet. Jack Sharman, who served as special counsel during Bill Clinton's Whitewater scandal, said they will likely result in memos being produced, though those memos may not be shared publicly.

But, as Sharman also noted, Priebus and Spicer could assert their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination or try to assert executive privilege and say their conversations with Trump can't be shared. The latter would likely result in the Supreme Court deciding whether their claims are valid, as it did during Watergate.

In other words, their level of loyalty to Trump could matter. And Trump isn't big on loyalty to others. He is a man who isn't afraid to needle, cajole and oftentimes embarrass those around him. That approach may not always serve him well.

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President Trump has weighed in on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election time and time again. Here's a look at how he can limit the probe, and what Congress is trying to do about it. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for The Fix.

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