Politico reporter Alex Isenstadt paid a certain price for his Sunday scoop about White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s treatment of his underlings in the White House communications office. Under the headline “Sean Spicer targets own staff in leak crackdown,” Isenstadt and colleague Annie Karni documented how Spicer, with the assistance of White House lawyers, asked his colleagues to submit to a “phone check” in an apparent effort to snuff out leakers.
Hours later, the Washington Examiner published a short hit piece on Isenstadt: “Claim: Reporter laughs at Trump aide’s emotion over SEAL death.” If that headline sounds a bit confusing, well, it’s more straightforward than the story itself. Using information from anonymous “White House officials,” the Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard reported that Isenstadt had somehow run afoul of common decency in reporting his story. The moment arose as Isenstadt was asking Spicer in a telephone call late last week about a tip he’d received that a White House aide, Jessica Ditto, was reduced to tears after Spicer had criticized her work.
In the call, Spicer expressed anger at the allegation and contested the charge. “The only time Jessica recalls almost getting emotional is when we had to relay the information on the death of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer told Isenstadt, a reference to the anti-terrorism raid by U.S. forces in Yemen on Jan. 28. Then came the scandal, according to Bedard’s piece. “He started laughing about that SEAL,” Bedard quotes an “informed official” as saying about Isenstadt.
What? A Politico reporter laughed about the death of a Navy SEAL who died serving his country, in a talk with a White House official who also happens to be U.S. Navy Reserve commander? Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring stated that this claim was a “patently false characterization” of the exchange; far from laughing about a SEAL’s death, Isenstadt was reacting merely to the vehemence with which Spicer was disputing his reporting.
Dayspring confirms that Spicer leveled this SEAL-related accusation in the call itself. That wasn’t all: The press secretary also spoke in that call of the possibility of pitching that story to another outlet, the better to unmask Isenstadt’s alleged ridiculing of a dead Navy SEAL. Isenstadt explained he had done no such thing.
Isenstadt and Spicer traded emails about the story on Sunday, when the story was published. Again Spicer brought up the laughter allegation and pledged to Isenstadt that he “will be sure to get that out.” Not long after, Bedard was in Isenstadt’s email citing White House “insiders” who’d entrusted him with a “nugget.”
The theater-of-the-absurd implications here are that you should never chuckle about anything in a call with Spicer. Nervous laughter can too easily be turned against you. What, are you laughing about millions of Americans being priced out of the medical insurance market? the press secretary could say. So you think it’s funny that millions of Americans took days off of work to attend the president’s inauguration? I suppose you get your kicks out of hard-working Midwesterners watching their jobs pack up for Mexico! Are you giggling about the president’s use of a bathrobe?
At a deeper level, however, the funnies dry up. Here we have a White House official threatening to go to extreme lengths in an apparent effort to quash a pending story, or at least a component of it. That’s hardly a surprise given what that story itself documented about this man’s attempts to stifle leaks.
Spicer hasn’t responded to requests for comment.