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New Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany could do the impossible: Make us miss Sean Spicer

Then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer at a June 2017 briefing. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

By now, we’ve come to accept that spin is part of the job description for White House press secretaries. It’s a tactic and talent that has been on display in every modern presidential administration.

But race-baiting? Dangerous bluster on topics of public health? Blatant sycophancy?

We should still be shocked to see these qualities in the president’s top spokesperson. Evidence of these things in someone’s background should be disqualifying for the position — which, after all, is responsible for informing the public through the news media.

CNN made Kayleigh McEnany into everything Trump would want in a press secretary

Nevertheless, Kayleigh McEnany got the job Tuesday. She got it despite her appalling Twitter joke in 2012 about President Barack Obama’s brother having never left his Kenyan hut and smears centered on “birtherism” conspiracy theories — unfounded questions about whether Trump’s predecessor was born in the United States — to stoke racism.

She got it despite confidently stating that President Trump doesn’t lie (everybody knows he does, a lot) and that in 2002 “President Obama” (actually a state senator then) went golfing after journalist Daniel Pearl was abducted and killed.

And perhaps worst of all, Trump’s former 2020 campaign spokeswoman got the job after spouting rose-tinted hype about the president’s supposed victories over the coronavirus. That included this beauty, uttered Feb. 25 on the since-canceled Fox Business show hosted by Trish Regan: “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.” Five weeks later, 13,000 have died of the disease in the United States and hundreds of thousands more are infected.

As the coronavirus spread, incoming White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany initially downplayed the threat before touting the president’s response to it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Incoming press secretary McEnany accused Democrats of rooting for the coronavirus

Awful as McEnany is, she is the logical next step in the trajectory that began with Sean Spicer and his false — but boss-pleasing — utterance on Jan. 21, 2017.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” the former Republican National Committee official insisted just one day after Trump took the oath of office.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave this claim its worst grade, Four Pinocchios, and my colleague Glenn Kessler explained why: “This is an appalling performance by the new press secretary. He managed to make a series of false and misleading claims in service of a relatively minor issue. Presumably he was ordered to do this by Trump, who conjured up fantastic numbers in his own mind, but part of a flack’s job is to tell the boss when lies are necessary — and when they are not.” He added, “Spicer earns Four Pinocchios, but seriously, we wish we could give five.”

Don’t cry for Spicer. His tenure was a disaster from Day One and he should have quit immediately.

But life went on for Spicer, in the form of being mocked relentlessly on “Saturday Night Live” and inspiring a classic CNN chyron, “President’s Spokesman Says He Can’t Speak for the President.”

The worst may have come one May evening in 2017 as Spicer suggested the press work in the dark on the White House grounds.

“Just turn the lights off,” he pleaded with the reporters clamoring for information about the president’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. After it seemed the only way he could get back to his office after a nighttime live spot was by walking past the swarm, Spicer agreed to talk with them, but only off camera and in near-darkness.

All this was very bad.

Sarah Sanders was the disdainful Queen of Gaslighting

But then he was followed in the job by Sarah Sanders, whose outright contempt for the White House press corps — performance art for the boss and his base — maintained, at least briefly, the power to shock.

In the briefing room, she delivered consistently on what New York University professor Jay Rosen has called the “brand promise” of the Trump administration’s treatment of the press: “Watch, we will put these people down for you.”

By contrast, she made Spicer look more bumbling than vile.

And Sanders lied, too, as she eventually had to admit. On the subject of Comey’s firing, she told the assembled press that it went over well at the agency: “I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said that they’re very happy with the president’s decision.” But she couldn’t provide details of this dubious claim and later acknowledged under oath to the staff of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that it was not founded on anything at all.

But heck, at least she held regular press briefings, which was more than her successor, Stephanie Grisham, ever did.

Stephanie Grisham is not the worst-ever White House press secretary. Here’s why.

Grisham’s idea of being the White House press secretary was to trash reporters on Twitter, remove a correspondent’s press pass until a judge ordered her to give it back, and offer cringe-inducing lavishments such as this one, after the departure of Trump’s chief of staff: “I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our president.”

Given this inglorious history, what can we expect McEnany to do?

For the answer to this, we must look to the past — her own and that of her predecessors.

Best guess: She’ll be even worse than they were — even more blatantly political, even more contemptuous of the truth, even more of a sycophant. All this with an extra dollop of the combativeness that she showed as a Trump surrogate during the 2016 campaign and more recently as his campaign spokeswoman. And all this with the campaign fast approaching, and no discernible boundary between politicking and governing.

It’s almost enough to induce nostalgia.

Who would have thought, listening to Spicer lie on Jan. 21, 2017, that things would only go straight downhill from there?

Read more by Margaret Sullivan:

The Cuomo brothers put on quite a show. Should the journalism-ethics police shut it down?

Anthony Fauci symbolizes everything about the Trump-era media climate

The media must stop live-broadcasting Trump’s dangerous, destructive coronavirus briefings