It was the third day of the Republican National Convention, the party’s big chance to pitch America on its vision for the country, and all anybody wanted to talk to Sean Spicer about was “My Little Pony.”
He’d set himself up for this, frankly. As the party’s chief strategist and spokesman, it had fallen upon him to defend Melania Trump against charges of plagiarism after an opening-night tribute to her husband that uncannily echoed an old Michelle Obama speech. Spicer argued to CNN that the aspiring first lady’s talk of hard work and goal-fulfillment was built on phrases so commonplace as to be found in a children’s cartoon: “Twilight Sparkle from ‘My Little Pony’ said, ‘This is your dream. Anything you can do in your dreams, you can do now.’ ”
The mockery from the chattering classes came quickly.
“What’s it going to be today, the Pony Express or more ‘My Little Pony’?” Bloomberg’s Al Hunt chortled, as he spotted Spicer maneuvering through a cluster of police officers and protesters in downtown Cleveland. “Was ‘My Little Pony’ really the best you could come up with?” asked the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein.
Spicer just grinned. Was it an absurd sound bite? Of course. But he had succeeded in getting the media to talk about “commonly used phrases” and, in general, treating the whole ordeal like a big joke. The Art of the Spiel: If you don’t like the conversation, change it.
“It trended on Twitter,” he said, as he sat down for an interview in the convention center.
When pundits talk about a hostile takeover of the GOP establishment, they may seem to be talking about an old Washington hand like Spicer. The longest-serving communications director for the Republican National Committee is a guy who spent years preaching the virtues of free trade and arguing for a kinder, gentler appeal to immigrants — stances that have been all but vaporized by Donald Trump.
But if Spicer is suffering culture shock, you wouldn’t know it. The GOP nominee’s winning-is-everything philosophy is one that jibes nicely with his own. No one issue matters more to Spicer than the party itself — and right now, nothing matters more to the party than victory.
“Every day I want to put points on the board,” he said. “That’s what I care about more than anything else.”
It’s a mentality that has kept him in the good graces of the volatile nominee (“Sean is a person whom I have tremendous respect for,” Trump said in an email) and earned him the kind of visibility that would be the envy of many Beltway climbers. But at what cost? If Trump loses, will the out-front spokesman be forever tarnished by association? Spicer is certainly not the first political operative to make a calculated decision to sign on with a problematic client — but then again, there’s never been client quite like Trump.
“To be a spokesperson you need to be able to defend the nominee without hesitation,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I can assure you that 90 percent of the people who have done this kind of thing for a living would have some hesitation. But I’m glad somebody’s comfortable with it.”
This is the face This is the face of today’s Republican Party: The nose is pinched, the hair is sandy blond, the eyes are intense. But all you really need to know can be seen in the mouth. This is where Spicer’s talent and nervous energy meet. Watch it open wide enough to inhale his phone as he yells at an editor. Behold its versatility, as he at once chastises Trump for calling Mexicans rapists and murderers while also lauding him for calling attention to the issue of illegal immigration. Even when he is not speaking, it works on overdrive, churning through pieces of Orbit cinnamon gum, which he chews and swallows whole. Notwithstanding his line of work, the man just can’t stand a gross-feeling mouth.
“Two and a half packs by noon,” said Spicer. “I talked to my doctor about it, he said it’s no problem.”
There was one very brief period of his career when this mouth was not working furiously. That was in 2006, when a line drive smashed into his face during a slow-pitch softball game, leaving him with his jaw wired shut as he embarked on the job that launched him on the radar of official Washington — the spokesman for the U.S. trade representative.
For almost three years, he was one of the town’s most ardent advocates for free trade. Today, he is fighting for Trump, the most protectionist GOP nominee in decades. He acknowledges the contradiction, but Spicer’s tradecraft places a greater value on loyalty than consistency.
“There are doctors who help people who have done bad things, there are lawyers who defend bad people,” he said. “I don’t think it’s unique to my profession.”
Trump, his new muse, says aloud what political operatives have always understood: Winning is the important thing. Spicer, who has the compact build of a second baseman, does not like losing, ever. “Whether it’s Nerf basketball or trivia,” said his boss, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
“If the charge against me is that I fight to win and I’m intense,” Spicer said, “then I’m guilty.”
Others call it more of a short fuse. Armstrong Williams, the business manager of then-candidate Ben Carson, bumped into Spicer in a CNN green room last fall. Williams had been complaining about the RNC-organized debates, and Spicer didn’t appreciate the feedback.
“He tore into me,” Williams said. “I could see the fire in his eyes.”
He’s feuded publicly with the media, most notably reporters for Politico, whom he has blasted on Twitter for “made up” stories or “sensational faux reporting.” One editor of a D.C.-based publication said she’s been on the receiving end of so many Spicer tirades that when he calls her at home, her young child will recognize his voice and burst into tears. “Sean Spicer,” she says, “is a curse word in our house.”
For Spicer, 44, the drive to win predated any ideology. He grew up in Rhode Island — his mother works in the East Asian studies department at Brown University and his father is an insurance agent — in a home he says was never particularly political.
But at Connecticut College, he caught the student government bug after the sailing team could no longer satisfy his competitive urges. Surrounded by liberal classmates, he began to think of himself as Republican. His agenda wasn’t particularly partisan — working to ban smoking in a dining hall, fighting for cable TV in the dorms. But the seeds of his contentious relationship with the press had already been sown.
“I am writing in response to the article in the April 26 edition of the Voice in which my name was ‘misspelled,’ ” he wrote to his school paper in 1993. While the paper had told him it had been unintentional, he believed “that it was a malicious and intentional attack.” The paper had called him “Sean Sphincter.”
“The First Amendment does uphold the right to free speech,” he added, “however, this situation goes beyond the bounds of free speech.”
For his junior year, he decamped to Washington’s American University to study politics up close, and he found his calling.
After years in the trenches of the House and Senate, followed by his visible post at the trade representative’s office, he ascended to the RNC in 2011. He has held on to that job longer than any of his predecessors, though not by design. According to a number of his colleagues, Spicer had angled for the job of chief of staff but was passed over for former finance director Katie Walsh after the 2014 midterms. As a consolation the RNC created a new title, “chief strategist,” for Spicer to add to his résumé.
Today, Spicer is a bona fide famous-for-Washington personality, with the obligatory target on his back. His seeming eagerness to accept any TV punditry spot has inspired some backbiting around town. His cavorting at a Time magazine gala — documented in the celebrity selfies he posted on social media the same night Trump virtually locked up the nomination — irked many despondent Republican operatives.
Spicer certainly enjoys his role in the political firmament. He’s a self-described pack rat of campaign ephemera, who took it upon himself to collect the autographs of every living GOP presidential nominee to hang in the RNC offices. He asked each to sign two sets of posters, so he could keep one for himself.
The city he loves is a place that rewards picking a team and fighting for it. “We’ve all had times of twisting in the proverbial wind,” says Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic operative currently serving as her party’s interim chair. They may be on opposite teams, but they’re playing the same game and have a collegial relationship — she has called to pick his brain late at night before going on TV to opine about the GOP, and he gave her a floor pass in Cleveland so she could greet delegates from her home state of Louisiana. “He might actually believe everything he’s saying,” she adds, “but I see him as a professional doing his job.”
But what happens when your team gets saddled with the most controversial candidate in recent memory? Can you prepare a personal exit strategy?
Last week, Last week, a handful of journalists gathered at the RNC headquarters on Capitol Hill for barbecue, beer and an off-the-record briefing from Spicer. As he launched into his welcome, several of the guests gasped — not at anything he’d said, but at what was happening on the three flat-screen TVs behind him: A man who had been scaling Trump Tower in Manhattan with suction cups had been apprehended, yanked through a window on the 21st floor.
Unfazed, Spicer began regaling the journalists with a laundry list of party accomplishments: the number of doors knocked on, voters targeted, supporters “touched.” It sounded to many of the journalists present like he was preparing for a day when Trump might try to blame the RNC for an eventual loss. When guests pressed him on whether the party might ever cut Trump loose, Spicer punted, according to several people present: “We’ll see what the situation is like on October 15th.”
“You gotta save your own reputation,” one of the journalists said later. “If he wants to work in this town again, he wants people to know that he wasn’t fully bought in, despite what he says on Twitter.”
Spicer denies that he’s looking out for himself. The fight for Trump, he says, is a fight for the party as a whole. If Trump can’t at least keep it close, he’ll become a drag on down-ballot candidates and risk losing Republican control of the Senate.
He says the only people whose opinions he truly cares about are his parents, his two young children and his wife, Rebecca, an executive with the National Beer Wholesalers Association. When this election has passed, he says, he is confident that nothing about it will embarrass him.
After talking with a reporter on that third day of the Republican convention, Spicer made his way through the crowds to a meeting with Priebus. He grinned at a few more jabs about “My Little Pony,” then exchanged pleasantries with Jeffrey Lord, a CNN contributor and one of the first Trump surrogates.
“He was like an early investor,” Spicer said after they parted. “It’s like being one of the first employees at Google, and seeing the stock go up.”
But what happens to your capital if the stock crashes?
While Spicer met with Priebus in a room just off the convention floor, more news broke on the Melania controversy. A Trump speechwriter had put out a statement apologizing for lifting some of Michelle Obama’s words — effectively confirming the plagiarism. Spicer emerged from his confab into the blinding lights and bustling activity of the convention hall.
Sooo, how about that Twilight Sparkle defense in light of the latest news?
“Well, I mean it definitely answers the question,” Spicer said, making his way back through the mazelike complex. “Now, how do we get out of here?”