Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer got a turn on one of Hollywood's glitziest stages Sunday night. And he used it to laugh about the falsehoods he told the American people in an attempt to rehabilitate his image.
I'm all for a good laugh. And I'll add up front that there are political issues on which people have extremely strong feelings and unfortunately can't see the other side — we all have blind spots and should be mindful of that. But inherent in Spicer's appearance Sunday night was an acknowledgment that he sold the American people a bill of goods from the White House lectern. He essentially admitted to blatantly misrepresenting President Trump's inauguration crowd size, and he and those assembled all had a good laugh at it.
Here's how it went down, with late-night host Stephen Colbert — who happens to be one of Trump's most unapologetic and high-profile critics — setting up the gag:
COLBERT: What really matters to Donald Trump is ratings. You've got to have the big numbers. And I certainly hope we achieve that tonight. Unfortunately, at this point, we have no way of knowing how big our audience is. I mean, is there anyone who could say how big the audience is. Sean, do you know?
(Spicer glides out with a podium, Melissa McCarthy-style.)
SPICER: This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period — both in person and around the world.
COLBERT: Wow. That really soothes my fragile ego. I could understand why you'd want one of these guys around. Melissa McCarthy, everybody, give it up!
Yes, Colbert didn't totally let Spicer and Trump off the hook, lampooning Trump's “fragile ego.” But Spicer yukking it up over one of his most demonstrably false statements from the White House lectern strongly suggests this is just what spokesmen are supposed to do. The president asked him to do it, so it must be okay. Damn the truth.
It's not the first time Spicer has gone down this road. While rehabbing his image on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show earlier this month, he tacitly admitted that the things he said from the lectern were B.S. — albeit B.S. he was instructed to shovel by the boss.
Here's what The Fix's Callum Borchers wrote about his crowd-size comments on that show:
“Even if you know the crowd wasn't bigger, you have to go — as press secretary, you have to say that it was,” Kimmel said, trying to understand Spicer's position.
“Look, your job as press secretary is to represent the president's voice,” Spicer replied, “and to make sure that you are articulating what he believes, [what] his vision is on policy, on issues and on other areas that he wants to articulate. Whether or not you agree or not isn't your job.”
What Spicer is saying here is that he believes his job was not merely to defend political decisions with which he disagreed, but to make false statements, if asked to do so by the president.
Speaking with Kimmel, Spicer indicated he did not want to talk about crowd size in his first address to reporters.
“There was a lot of us that wanted to be focused on his agenda, what he spoke about in his inaugural address,” Spicer said. “So, you know, look, but he's president. He made a decision.”
When Spicer exited as press secretary, I wrote about how this kind of thing should not be normalized. Spokesmen have a duty to represent their bosses and toe the company line, but they also have a duty to do so believably and with some regard for the truth. There are shades of gray, and then there is laughing at flouting the truth, which is what Spicer did Sunday night. When spokesmen do that, dismissing their falsehoods only serves notice to other spokesmen that they needn't worry about being credible.
Spicer served Trump for more than six months — a period in which he was repeatedly dispatched to say things that strained credulity and were found to be false. When the media and the American people give spokesmen no compunction about doing that — and suggest that one day it could all be laughed off — the falsehoods will only multiply.