In the hours after the Supreme Court allowed partial implementation of President Trump's travel ban on Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not have much to say about the decision.
During an off-camera briefing with reporters in which live audio broadcasting was banned, Spicer said the president was “honored” by the ruling but declined to elaborate on how much authority Trump believed he had been granted by the court.
“The decision obviously just came down a few hours ago, so we'll probably have further guidance for you as it becomes available,” Spicer said. “In the meantime, I would suggest you reach out to the Department of Justice.”
Or just talk to Trump's private lawyer.
Before Spicer briefed reporters, Trump attorney Jay Sekulow appeared on live television to do exactly what the White House spokesman would not — deliver the president's understanding of the power vested in him by the Supreme Court.
Does the decision mean, asked Fox Business host Stuart Varney, “that we can keep some people out in the immediate future?”
“Yes,” Sekulow replied. “The 90-day pause, the 120-day pause, all of those stay in place.”
For weeks, the White House has referred questions related to investigations of Russian election meddling to Trump's personal attorneys. That practice is at least somewhat understandable because investigators probing for possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia are scrutinizing a time period when the president was a private citizen.
But the travel ban is unrelated to Russia. It is a White House policy enacted via executive orders. Naturally, journalists and voters expect statements about the ban to come from the White House.
What difference does it make?
Well, remember that Spicer is — as CNN's Jim Acosta noted during a testy exchange over the prohibition on filming Monday — “a taxpayer-funded spokesman for the United States government.” There are certain responsibilities that come with that status.
“I believe the press secretary needs to work for both the press and the president,” Mike McCurry, who held the post under Bill Clinton, said in a Q&A with the White House Historical Association. “I like to say the geography of the West Wing is a metaphor for the relationship — the press secretary's office is exactly half way between the Oval Office and the briefing room. The press office has to be an advocate for the press and the public's right to know inside the White House.”
By contrast, Trump's personal lawyers are loyal only to Trump. They have no obligation to represent the interests of the press or the public.
Thus it matters a great deal whether information comes from the White House press secretary, who owes a duty to voters, or from an attorney working for Trump, who does not. In recent weeks, Sekulow has become increasingly visible, while Spicer has receded into the background.