Never let it be said that President Trump and his underlings don’t work hard, especially when it comes to initiatives aimed at smearing and stymieing the White House press corps. Let’s look at this crew’s throughput over just the past three days.
Friday afternoon: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds an off-camera gaggle with an “expanded pool” of media organizations. This pool, however, doesn’t expand quite enough to accommodate outlets like CNN and the New York Times — plus others — that have published investigative stories on some less savory aspects of Trumpworld.
Saturday: The New York Times, under the bylines of Glenn Thrush and Michael Grynbaum, published a very good story on how Trump managed to manipulate the tabloids in New York City, though the same tactics don’t work quite as well in the higher-stakes environs of Washington. “New York is extremely intense and competitive, but it is actually a much smaller pond than Washington, where you have many more players with access to many more sources,” the reporters quoted political strategist Howard Wolfson.
It was a smart piece of journalism for a newspaper that straddles both cities. Spicer, though, found a factual error:
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) February 25, 2017
So far, so fair — the original piece said that Spicer was New England born; that’s wrong. He has every right to call out mistakes on whatever platform he deems appropriate.
The depravity surfaced in the correction that the New York Times appended to the story. Here it is, in full:
Correction: February 25, 2017
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Sean Spicer’s upbringing. He was New England bred, having been raised in Rhode Island; he was not “New England born.” (Mr. Spicer would not go on the record and give the correct facts pertaining to his birthplace.)
The most important part of that correction comes in parentheses. Yes, the White House press secretary, who has spoken over and over about how his job as White House media liaison is a “two-way street,” declined to provide specificity to the New York Times as it sought to correct the record. Leave it to Sean Spicer to request a correction and obstruct it in one breath.
Although Spicer managed to keep his birthplace from the New York Times, he couldn’t keep it from Twitter:
— Stefan Becket (@becket) February 26, 2017
Just for ironic kicks, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweaked Spicer for getting bent out of shape over birthplace issues, given the history of his boss:
I imagine it must be really annoying when someone puts out false info about where you were born. Must really bother you!!
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 25, 2017
Sunday: Annie Karni and Alex Isenstadt of Politico publish a piece about how Spicer has been investigating alleged leaks from within his own staff:
Last week, after Spicer became aware that information had leaked out of a planning meeting with about a dozen of his communications staffers, he reconvened the group in his office to express his frustration over the number of private conversations and meetings that were showing up in unflattering news stories, according to sources in the room.
Upon entering Spicer’s office for what one person briefed on the gathering described as “an emergency meeting,” staffers were told to dump their phones on a table for a “phone check,” to prove they had nothing to hide.
Those details are chilling though not surprising, given what we know about the zeal of President Trump to always be seeking and punishing leakers. Though he seems to love leakers when they’re helping him. In any case, the Karni-Isenstadt story made the rounds today, including on CNN and other outlets.
Bad news always places White House handlers in a bind. How to respond? Keep quiet? Issue an apology? Deny? Make a pledge to dismantle the surveillance state descending on your colleauges? Nah, better to ring up the Washington Examiner and have it smear Isenstadt.
Voila! “Claim: Reporter laughs at Trump aide’s emotion over SEAL death,” reads the headline of Examiner reporter Paul Bedard’s piece posted early Sunday evening. Note the wording — with its “claim” construction, the Washington Examiner is placing no institutional credibility in the story that follows. Rather, it’s signaling that it’ll be carrying the water for a media-hating White House.
Scattered and poorly executed, the story appears to represent the assertion by anonymous White House officials that Isenstadt, while reporting the Spicer-leak-investigation piece, did something offensive. The alleged moment arose as Isenstadt was asking Spicer in an interview about a staffer at the White House press office. Here’s how Karni and Isenstadt reported out the scenario:
Within the communications office, the mood has grown tense. During a recent staff meeting, Spicer harshly criticized some of the work deputy communications director Jessica Ditto had done, causing her to cry, according to two people familiar with the incident. “The only time Jessica recalls almost getting emotional is when we had to relay the information on the death of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer said, referring to the Navy SEAL killed recently in action in Yemen.
What fresh material was the Washington Examiner adding to this matter? Well, its anonymous White House sources whisper that Isenstadt laughed inappropriately when discussing the Ditto issue. “He started laughing about that SEAL,” the Washington Examiner quotes “one informed official” as saying. Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring denied any such characterization. Asked how he justified using anonymous sourcing for such an allegation, the Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard responded, “I thought Brad had a good response as did the anon Politico who characterized Spicer.”
The Washington Examiner’s treatment makes it utterly impossible to determine just who leaked details of a conversation involving Sean Spicer and Politico. Since Spicer apparently has a thing for investigating leaks, however, we call upon him to investigate this one.
Politico Editor Carrie Budoff Brown tweeted:
Reporter writes story WH doesn't like/disputes. WH anonymously plants false story about reporter. https://t.co/2ZGue3uxfz
— Carrie Budoff Brown (@cbudoffbrown) February 27, 2017
Before assuming his role as press secretary, Spicer was downright Trumpian regarding his feelings for Politico. Appearing at a December event with Politico “Playbook” reporters Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, Spicer brandished a binder, saying, “This is every story that Politico has done on the RNC and GOP this year,” said Spicer. “I do have a problem with how Politico has engaged in covering politics, especially on our side. I think it is tweet-happy, it is clickbait in many cases and it’s devoid of facts.”
Spicer didn’t respond to questions via email. But here’s a good one for him: What’s next?