This is the year that White House press briefings became must-see TV — when they were on TV, that is. Access for television cameras was a point of contention between journalists and President Trump's administration in 2017. The enduring legacy of Anthony Scaramucci's 10-day stint as White House communications director is that he restored consistent, live telecasts of question-and-answer sessions.
Interactions between reporters and the president's spokesmen produced many memorable moments, on camera and off. Here are 10 that stand out.
'The largest audience'
The day after Trump's inauguration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer made his debut in the briefing room and angrily insisted that Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
This was a false statement. As news outlets had reported, Barack Obama's 2009 swearing-in attracted a bigger crowd.
Spicer's inaccurate account and irate tone put the relationship between the White House and the press corps on a choppy course. It also helped inspire Melissa McCarthy's impression of Spicer on “Saturday Night Live,” which she performed for the first time two weeks later.
After resigning, Spicer said he “absolutely” regrets the assertion on the inauguration crowd size.
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When Trump thrashed the press in an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Spicer held an off-camera briefing at the White House and barred certain media organizations, including CNN, the New York Times, Politico and BuzzFeed. Outlets that generally cover the president more favorably, such as Fox News, Breitbart News and the Washington Times, were allowed to attend.
“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet said at the time.
Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron said, “This is an undemocratic path that the administration is traveling.”
'Stop shaking your head'
At a briefing in March, Spicer grew irritated as he rejected the premise of a question from American Urban Radio's April Ryan. “You've got Russia,” Ryan had said, listing several reasons that, in her view, the administration needed to “revamp its image.”
“You've got Russia,” Spicer shot back, accusing Ryan of pushing an “agenda.”
“If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that's a Russian connection,” Spicer added, suggesting that media inquiries about the Trump campaign and Russia are ridiculous.
Ryan shook her head at Spicer's dismissiveness, which irked him further.
“Please stop shaking your head,” he said at one point.
Later, in an appearance on CNN, Ryan stopped short of calling Spicer sexist but noted that he had recently referred to another female journalist as an “idiot.” Spicer said he did not treat reporters differently based on gender or race.
The term “concentration camp” seemed to escape Spicer during an April briefing, so he used a clumsy alternative: “Holocaust center.”
What made the gaffe so cringe-worthy was the context: While attempting to emphasize the depravity of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, Spicer told reporters that “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons” — apparently forgetting that Adolf Hitler used poison gas to kill millions of Jews.
Called out by a journalist, Spicer tried to clarify: “He brought them into the Holocaust center. I understand that.”
He apologized for the claim later that evening, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer: “Frankly, I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there is no comparison.”
Among the bushes
Trump's firing of FBI Director James B. Comey in May led to this strange scene, described by The Post's Jenna Johnson:
White House press secretary Sean Spicer wrapped up his brief interview with Fox Business from the White House grounds late Tuesday night and then disappeared into the shadows, huddling with his staff near a clump of bushes and then behind a tall hedge. . . .
After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the darkness and among the bushes near these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged.
“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” he ordered. “We'll take care of this . . . Can you just turn that light off?”
Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness between two tall hedges, with more than a dozen reporters closely gathered around him.
'Maybe we should turn the cameras on, Sean'
By June, on-camera news briefings had become a rarity. Even live audio broadcasts were banned on most days; the White House allowed audio recordings to air only on tape delay.
Spicer justified the restrictions by claiming that reporters grandstand during televised briefings. CNN's Jim Acosta, in particular, got under Spicer's skin, so Spicer began calling on Acosta less frequently.
The tension boiled over during an off-camera Q&A session on June 26, when Acosta interrupted Spicer to ask a health-care question without being called on.
“There's no camera on, Jim,” Spicer answered, suggesting that Acosta was trying to make a scene.
“Maybe we should turn the cameras on, Sean,” Acosta retorted. “Why don't we turn the cameras on?”
The Mooch's one and only performance
Anthony Scaramucci did indeed turn the cameras on when he took over as White House communications director on July 21. The Mooch was an unconventional hire, given that the former Wall Street executive had zero experience in public relations. He and Spicer reportedly clashed, and Spicer resigned on the day Scaramucci was appointed.
Scaramucci's first appearance in the White House briefing room turned out to be his only one. He lasted just 10 days on the job.
But Scaramucci's singular performance was one to remember. He joked about needing “a lot of hair and makeup.” He claimed, contrary to extensive reporting, that then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was a “dear friend.” After leaving the White House, Scaramucci acknowledged that “there was no love lost” between him and Priebus. In the briefing room, however, he said, “I sort of don't like the fake news.”
Scaramucci also publicly apologized for having criticized Trump on TV early in the Republican presidential primary.
“I should have never said that about him,” Scaramucci said. “So, Mr. President, if you're listening, I personally apologize for the 50th time for saying that.”
And then, of course, there's that moment he blew the press a kiss.
'I'm the first mom to hold the job'
Scaramucci elevated Sarah Huckabee Sanders from deputy press secretary to press secretary, and in her first full briefing, Sanders shared an emotional reflection on achieving the position.
“In Washington, it's often easy to go to work, get lost in the process, and forget why we're here every day,” she said. “The reason we're here is to serve the American people. And today I'd like for you to indulge me and let me tell you a little bit about what that means for me.
“To the best of my knowledge, I'm the first mom to hold the job of the White House press secretary. . . . As a working mom, it's not lost on me what a great honor and what a privilege it is to stand here at the podium, and I thank the president for the opportunity.”
CNN's Acosta starred in an even more heated episode in August, opposite White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. The occasion was to outline immigration policy proposals by the Trump administration that would emphasize job and English skills when awarding green cards.
Miller made a guest appearance in the briefing room, ostensibly to make the case for proposals he had helped formulate. But he seemed less interested in defending the administration's ideas than in trying to make CNN look bad.
“You want to bring about a sweeping change to the immigration system,” Acosta said at one point, referring to Trump's pledge to build a wall along the southern border.
Instead of talking about the president's big-picture immigration plan, Miller immediately accused Acosta of conflating separate issues.
“Surely, Jim, you don't actually think that a wall affects green-card policy,” Miller shot back. “You couldn't possibly believe that, do you? … Do you really, at CNN, not know the difference between green-card policy and illegal immigration? I mean, you really don't know that?”
At another point, Acosta referred to Trump's plan to award points to green-card applicants based on English proficiency and asked, “Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?”
Rather than justify Trump's proposed emphasis on English skills, Miller acted as though Acosta had said that Britain and Australia are literally the only places on Earth, besides the United States, where English is spoken.
“I am shocked at your statement, that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English,” Miller said. “It's actually — it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree. … This is an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would know English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world. Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English, outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?”
John F. Kelly makes a false claim
The White House chief of staff made a rare appearance in the briefing room in October, on a mission to defend Trump against a claim by Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who said the president had made hurtful remarks in a phone call to the family of a soldier killed in Niger.
Kelly called Wilson an empty barrel and falsely claimed that the congresswoman took credit in a 2015 speech for securing federal funding to build an FBI office in Miami. Video of the speech, posted by the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, showed that Wilson did no such thing; instead, she praised her Republican colleagues for fast-tracking a bill she sponsored, which named the facility in honor of two FBI agents killed in action.
Kelly's attack — and subsequent refusal to acknowledge its inaccuracy — undercut his image as the fact-challenged president's better angel. When a reporter raised Kelly's false claim during the next day's media briefing, Sanders said, “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate.”