The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Sean Spicer messed up, and how he can make it right — from a guy who’s been there

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer reacts as he speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in May 2003. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Ari Fleischer has been in Sean Spicer's shoes. Not literally, of course, but when our last Republican president was inaugurated, it was Fleischer who took to the podium in the White House and forged the administration's relationship with the media, just as Spicer is doing today.

As Fleischer can attest, it's a pressure-cooker of a job — one without any real comparison, he says. And as controversy has erupted over Spicer's use of quickly disproven claims in an unorthodox public statement on Saturday, Fleischer has watched and analyzed from a perspective few can truly understand. He tweeted this after Spicer's statement:

So I spoke with him Monday to get his thoughts on what just happened, what lies ahead, and what he thinks of the dynamic that's unfolding between Spicer and the press corps that he'll confront at his first official briefing Monday afternoon. Our conversation is in full below.

WAPO: You tweeted that Spicer was going out there and delivering the message Trump wanted. What made you say that?

FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say I’ve never had an experience quite like that one. But press secretaries don’t take to the podium on their own, especially for a Saturday night event like that. This clearly was the president saying to Sean, ‘The coverage is terrible. Go out there and correct it.’ I think it’s also reflective of a White House that is happy to and is looking for reasons to fight with the press.

WAPO: Can you remember any similar requests from your time as press secretary in which you might have been uncomfortable delivering the desired message? How did you handle it?

FLEISCHER: I’ve actually been trying to wrack my brains to see if there was such a thing. I do remember during [George W.] Bush’s inaugural, there was a picture in The Washington Post of when Bush went to visit one of the agencies. The way the picture was taken — it may have been the Department of Interior — the way the president was standing in front of some logo or insignia, it looked like president had horns coming out of his head. And I remember somebody in the president’s family — I can’t remember who — didn’t like the picture. And somebody wanted me to call The Post or someone and complain about it. And I think I kind of said, ‘Yeah, terrible picture,’ and I slow-walked the complaint. I may have gotten a busy signal.

I mean, there are certain times you rattle the press’s cages, and other times you don’t, and you have to be discerning about it. But never do you go to the podium and speak in that manner and not take questions. Never.

Fact-checking the White House's inauguration claims. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

The other thing I thought of is, there’s an alternative way it could have been handled. If you are ever uncomfortable or are unsure of something, you attribute it. You say, “From the president’s point of view, from where he stood, it looked to him like the crowd went all the way back to the Washington Monument.” That would have been an accurate statement, from the president’s perspective. That was his viewpoint. Now, other people could have a different viewpoint — they may have been closer to the Washington Monument, and the president’s viewpoint wasn’t an accurate one — but that’s better to say it that way than to use facts and statistics if the facts and statistics are in and of themselves wrong.

And then the third one is there were times when, if you have to check with a staffer, and you’re not sure if what the staffer is saying is 100 percent accurate, you tell the staffer you’re going to attribute the answer to him on the record. So you say, “I checked with so-and-so, and they told me …” It’s a real fast way to sniff out whether the staffer is comfortable having his or her name attributed to the statement.

WAPO: Do you have sympathy for Spicer and the position that he’s in right now with Trump?

FLEISCHER: After my first day on the job, I had sympathy for everyone of my predecessors. And as soon as I left the job, I had instant sympathy for every one of my successors. It’s a wonderful, marvelous, fascinating, best, worst, most pressure-filled, difficult job anyone will ever hold. So I have sympathy for Sean every second he’s in that job, just like I have for all his predecessors and successors. It comes with the territory.

WAPO: Has the media’s reaction to this been commensurate with what Spicer did? You noted that you wished the press had been similarly up in arms about the Obama administration incorrectly blaming the Benghazi attacks on a YouTube video.

FLEISCHER: I started out as press secretary on Capitol Hill in 1983, and I have seen this pattern for decades, where issues like this are dry grass to the press that instantly is lit on fire, and the fire is big. If it’s a Democrat, the press duly reports it and quickly moves on. For Republicans, it’s a feeding frenzy; for Democrats, it’s a brief mention.

And the example I do believe is true is at the hearings earlier this year where it came out that Secretary Clinton told her daughter this appeared to be a preplanned attack [in Benghazi], but she told the public it was a result of a YouTube video. That should have been a full feeding frenzy for the media. But the media was so tired of hearing the word Benghazi, they blipped right through it.

When I was Elizabeth Dole’s communications director, she went up to New Hampshire and gave a speech about reasonable gun safety measures, talking about trigger locks and other things like that. And she was roundly praised by the press. They loved it. And I remember coming back to my desk and thinking, ‘It’s so much easier to do press if you take positions that the press likes than to take conservative Republican positions.’ It’s always struck me this way.

WAPO: And this just kind of confirms all that for you — even as you may take issue with what Sean did?

FLEISCHER: I don’t quarrel with the press for taking issue with the statistics used about the inaugural parade or the White House making a big issue of the inaugural. Who cares? But I take issue with the press making this a full-throated feeding frenzy when they don’t about other issues. I think they gave President Obama soft coverage for eight years. And going through the cross tabs on a Gallup poll in October about whether or not the public has faith in the press to fully, accurately and fairly report the news — which is it’s job — what you’re going to find is that 86 percent of Republicans don’t, 70 percent of independents don’t, and 49 percent of Democrats don’t.

I mean, this is a massive crisis for the press, and the degree now that the press revs up its scrutiny and its opposition to Donald Trump, as opposed to being neutral and fair to Donald Trump — they will compound their own problem, because Republicans don’t trust them, independents largely don’t trust them, and the press risks just being credible to only one party in America. The press lost credibility with Republicans and independents during the Obama years, setting itself up for the damage that’s going to be done during the Trump years.

WAPO: We have Spicer’s first briefing coming up at 1:30 p.m. Monday. How does this change the dynamic, and how would you handle this going forward if you were Spicer?

FLEISCHER: I think this reinforces a point [former Bill Clinton White House press secretary] Mike McCurry and I made in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review a couple weeks ago, which is the briefing should not be on live TV. Forget what happened Saturday; the briefing in and of itself should not be a major news event. It should be one of many inputs in a reporter’s day for how to collect news and write stories, but it’s become a TV show. And in the long run, that’s not good for the press corps and not good for the White House.

But for today, I’ll use a baseball analogy: Saturday night was the top of the first, and Sean got to bat. Today is the bottom of the first, and the press’s time to hit. And they’re going to press Sean to back up the accuracy of the facts and the statistics and the broader points he was making. And if Sean can’t back it up, it’s going to be a tough day for him. If he can back it up, or if he just wisely acknowledges his statistics about the Metro were either incorrect or incomplete, he can emerge all the better.

But this is also why I do, at the end of the day, have faith in our process. The press secretary and the president get to make whatever assertions they want. It’s the press’s job in an impartial and fair way to challenge those assertions. And then we’ll see if the press secretary can or cannot back it up. The process actually works. I just think it should be toned down a notch or three. This is a long-term relationship; don’t burn out in the top of the first inning.