From the moment his resignation was announced in July 2017 just six months into his tenure, Spicer has been a visible presence on the media circuit, bouncing from television station to late-night comedy show to the pages of newspapers and even the Emmys in what many have called an effort at image rehabilitation.
Critics like to talk about how those who join the Trump administration at the zenith of their careers seem to leave it with their reputations tarnished in the public eye. But at least for Spicer, the fame he gained in the White House has still been a segue into business opportunities.
The Washington Post analyzed more than a dozen interviews that Spicer has given in the year since his resignation to explore the message the longtime Republican communications honcho has been putting out.
He has defended himself and heaped gratitude on Trump. He is quick with a chuckle, a posture of levity encapsulated by his surprise appearance at the Emmys. But perhaps most notably for a figure of his stature, he has consistently expressed regrets, a facet that Lori Cox Han, a presidential scholar and professor at Chapman University, said made him stand out among former White House officials. What can be gleaned from a close reading of these statements?
In more than half of the interviews, Spicer has inevitably expressed these regrets, often under tough questioning from anchors and reporters.
“There were times where I screwed up, there’s no question about it,” he told S.E. Cupp on CNN in January.
“Look, are there things that I wish I could have a do-over on?” he told the “Today” show last week. “Absolutely.”
Many interviewers have fixated on perhaps the most ignominious moment from Spicer’s time at the lectern, when, on the president’s first full day in the White House, he bitterly excoriated journalists and made a series of false statements at a news conference organized to perpetuate the apparently baseless idea that Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever witnessed “both in person and around the globe.”
Spicer has regularly expressed regrets about these remarks, beginning with an interview with the New York Times in September, but he has coupled some of his pleas by pointing out the challenges of the job of press secretary.
“Look, I made mistakes, there’s no question. I think we all do. Some of them I tried to own very publicly,” Spicer told ABC News correspondent Paula Faris. “And in some cases, there were things that I did that until someone brought it up, I said, ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize that was a mistake, I’m sorry about that,’ but to watch some of the personal attacks questioning my integrity, questioning what my intentions were, I think were really over-the-top.”
“I regret things that I did that brought embarrassment to myself, my family, friends of mine who have been very big supporters,” Spicer told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin in January. “It is a pressure cooker every single day for every single press secretary, and I think regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, understanding what it takes to come out every single day and expect to know every single issue and with precision up to the moment that it happens is a very, very, tough, tough task.”
The regrets have drawn a drumbeat of criticism from those who think that he has failed to fully reckon with his time as press secretary.
Spicer, who critics on the left have said went too far in stretching the bounds of truth, has at times sought to explain some of his performances by describing his job as speaking for — not fact-checking — the president, whether he agreed with Trump or not.
“Look, I believe the job is that you are to speak for a principal in lieu of them being able to speak for themselves,” he told Rolling Stone in June. “It is not to interpret for them. It is not to correct them. It’s like a lawyer goes in to their client and says: ‘Here is what we think the strategy should be. Here is how I think you should present the case.’ But at the end of the day, the client is the decision-maker.”
Han, the presidential scholar, said that she couldn’t think of another White House figure who had spent so much time expressing regret after leaving office.
“It’s almost like he wants you to hear him saying, ‘Do you have any idea how hard it was working in that White House?’ ” Han said. “I think he’s trying to position himself to be credible in whatever role he’s going to be having in his next venture.”
When asked last week by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly what his job was in the event the president said or tweeted something that is demonstrably untrue, Spicer did not give a clear answer.
“My job is to say, if someone says, you know, what is you know, in many cases, as I did say, the tweet speaks for itself,” Spicer said. “It’s not to interpret for him.”
He offers a stronger response in his book.
“In the face of these outbursts, the media often expected me to be an ombudsman if not an outright apologist for Donald Trump’s tweets,” Spicer writes. “I never did that. And I consider my stance on this to be a matter of principle.”
Edwin Battistella, an English professor at Southern Oregon University and the author of “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology,” said that there is a distinction between expressing regrets, saying sorry and apologizing.
“Saying I apologize is the strongest one, because the ‘I’ is in there,” Battistella said. “Sorry and regrets are both kind of ambiguous. You can be sorry it’s raining, but you can’t apologize for the rain, because it’s not your fault. And you can regret that you can’t go to a party. But it’s not really an apology.”
Of Spicer, Battistella said that “he’s not really apologizing, but he’s trying to offer some excuses and that he regrets the way things turned out.”
Spicer has also avoided saying anything that could be construed as criticism of the president. Instead, he has heaped praise and gratitude on his former boss and regularly talked up the honor of serving the president.
Spicer has also appeared to adjust his message depending on the political alignment of the outlet he’s been talking to. During the first interview he gave after his resignation was announced, he critiqued the media and told Fox News that he had “no regrets.”
He continued to lambaste the press to the Catholic television station EWTN. And in a largely sympathetic interview on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” morning show Monday, he did not repeat his regrets, though the inauguration news conference was brought up.
Battistella pointed out that Spicer’s pose in some interviews has not been dissimilar to his time as press secretary.
“He’s trying to have it a little bit both ways, which is what a press agent does,” Battistella said. “There are linguistic tells: the vagueness of the language. Things like ‘I regret things that I did that brought embarrassment to myself, my family, friends of mine.’ He’s kind of a bystander in this. For a really strong apology, you need to be in there taking responsibility and being clear about what you did.”
“What’s the phrase, exaggerated hyperbole?” Spicer said. “I think that’s a phrase he’s used. There’s no question that he’s a salesman at heart, and he tends to think everything is the best and the greatest. But that’s the nature of who he is.”
In his review of “The Briefing” for The Washington Post, Erik Wemple writes that Spicer’s portrait of Trump as a man of “compassion and sympathy” and “Christian instincts and feeling” is at odds with the image the president often projects while denigrating opponents or insulting rivals.
“Even a half-witted political memoir would grapple with such a disconnect — perhaps by acknowledging some fault in the boss, or perhaps by comparing his low points with those of other presidents,” Wemple writes. “Yet ‘The Briefing’ isn’t a political memoir, nor is it a work of recent history, nor a tell-all, or tell-anything. Rather, it is a bumbling effort at gaslighting Americans into doubting what they have seen with their own eyes as far back as June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy and labeled Mexican immigrants as rapists, beginning a pattern of racist attacks.”