Sean Spicer would like you to buy his book — despite its reported sloppiness, revisionist history and lack of remorse for the untruths he told from the White House podium. And on Tuesday, along a stop on his book tour, one interviewer let him have it.
“It was the start of the most corrosive culture,” the BBC's Emily Maitlis told him. “You played with the truth. You led us down a dangerous path. You have corrupted discourse for the entire world by going along with these lies.”
Spicer's retort? I know you are, but what am I. And also: Everyone does it.
“With all due — I'm sorry, Emily,” Spicer responded. “You act as though everything began and ended with that. You're taking no accountability for the many false narratives and false stories that the media perpetrated. . . . I take responsibility where I think I've fallen short or I could have done better. But for you to lay that kind of claim and make everything sound like it started and ended with Donald Trump is just absolutely ridiculous.”
At another point, Spicer repeated his past defense that it was his job to speak for the president — whatever that meant:
MAITLIS: I know from what I've read that you care about the freedoms and the institutions and the democracy on which —
SPICER: I do.
MAITLIS: — your country was built. This is the office of president spouting lies or half-truths or knocking down real truths, and you were his agent for those months.
SPICER: My job, as I've laid out in the book, was to be the president's spokesperson and communicate his thoughts and his ideas when he wasn't able to do it or wasn't present. But at the end of the day, he is the president of the United States, and it was his thoughts and his ideas . . . and his feelings that it was my job to communicate.
Accusatory interviews such as the one Maitlis gave Spicer should be employed in rare circumstances. But this is a circumstance in which it is completely deserved.
As I've written before, being a spokesman often requires you to toe the party line — that much is undoubtedly true. But there is a difference between making a strained argument and making a laughable one. There is a distinction between spinning and promoting baseless conspiracy theories. You can maintain your credibility with the public and with journalists by adroitly advocating your cause, but once you cross the line into ridiculous and demonstrable falsehoods, that's the point of no return. If other spokesmen have no compunction about spewing falsehoods and don't pay a professional price for it, the system falls apart.
Spicer argues that this is the way things have always been done — that spokesmen like him have always simply passed along their bosses' spin. That's not true. I've worked with hundreds of flacks over the years, and the vast, vast majority of them guarded their credibility fiercely by making sure they at least remained within the bounds of plausibility. Maybe Spicer had a boss who made that impossible or maybe he just wasn't that good at it; the answer isn't to torch the truth and pretend like you have no choice.
That's political nihilism. There is always a choice, and Spicer made his on Day One of the Trump administration with the infamous display involving Trump's inauguration crowd size. And in fact, he made it long before then; during the election, Spicer flatly denied something to me that another reporter had on tape. Clearly he was far less concerned than other spokesmen about saying something that came back to bite him, and that was borne out for the first six months of Trump's presidency.
Republicans will see interviews like these and see Spicer as one of the many conservatives allegedly being persecuted by the media. They'll buy his excuse that he was just doing his job and think his conduct was on par with every other White House press secretary. It wasn't. And allowing him to brush it under the rug is indeed to allow our discourse to be corrupted.