I don’t envy Sean Spicer’s job. That’s not sympathy—he’s working to defend the Trump agenda to the nation—but an acknowledgement that he’s had a rough time over the last five weeks. And things don’t appear to be getting easier, as leaks from inside the administration feed negative stories that come out an alarming rate from the media. Spicer’s actions to deal with the increasing chaos around the White House Press Office, however, are not making things better.
On Friday, Spicer decided to ban The New York Times, CNN, BuzzFeed News, The LA Times, Politico, The BBC and The Huffington Post from an off-the-record briefing held in his office. The move was to “push back” on reports of Russian connections with the Trump campaign that the White House have decried as unfounded. The decision caused outrage among members of the media in general and discomfort among members of the public.
Spicer’s move came hours after the President spoke at CPAC. Trump’s 48 minute speech included a fair amount of attacks on the news media—unsurprising given he described a number of outlets as the “enemy of the American people” only days before. The accusation of fake news was also featured in Trump’s remarks to the adoring crowd.
I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake. A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.
Those outlets are the ones that reported on the Russian links to his campaign and on the efforts of his Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to convince the FBI to come out and make a statement against that reporting.
Now, it’s important to note two things here in the interest of fairness. First, there is no independently verified evidence of Russian interference in the election to benefit Trump. To be sure—there are many causes for concern and reasons to want a full investigation. But every piece of evidence proffered thus far from the intelligence community and the DNC has run into challenges on its factual basis and credibility.
Second, Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the Golden Showers Memo was not journalism at its best. At the very least, as I wrote in January, “the long term negative effects of releasing unverified and potentially unverifiable allegations like these might far outweigh any plausible benefits of the information.” Publishing the dossier, in other words, made Spicer’s decision to exclude the outlet somewhat defensible to his base.
Having noted those two points, however, Spicer’s actions were truly inexcusable. No amount of squirming and pushing back and trying to change the narrative on Fox News’ Justice with Fascist Grandma is going to change that. You can’t spin your way out of throwing a party and not inviting the cool kids.
But Spicer wasn’t done. On Sunday, Politico reported that the Press Secretary was forcing staff to go through random phone checkpoints. Staffers are expected to turn their phones over to Spicer and White House lawyers for “phone checks.”
In addition, Spicer instructed his staff to refrain from using secure messaging apps like Signal and Confide, the latter of which deletes messages after they’re sent. The story provoked an immediate response from New York Magazine writer Olivia Nuzzi.
Yes, it seems that Spicer is himself an anonymous source in the leaking White House, passing along fake news and unsubstantiated rumors with aplomb. It's a distinction he shares with Priebus, who was royally knocked on his ass for a Fox News Sunday appearance on Feb. 19 in which he decried the use of unnamed sources within the White House.
If the White House—if any White House—can’t control its media message, that’s a good thing for the American people. A combative press and an executive branch with little control over staffers is a positive development after the last eight years of information lockdown we had from the Obama White House.
But while Obama’s administration fought the press through suffocation and legal repression, becoming the most hostile White House to press freedom in a generation, it still maintained the pretense of balance between the government and the media. Trump’s White House is taking the battle directly, and personally, to the media.
Every act of journalism that investigates Trump’s actions or tells truths that are inconvenient to his administration is met with anger, spite, and draconian policies. Spicer’s exclusion of news media is a hostile act against the free press that comes straight from the Trump playbook. His paranoid treatment of his aides’ privacy is indicative of a man hanging on to what little control he has left.
This behavior will only make things more difficult for the Press Secretary as he tries to control the media narrative surrounding the White House. That’s bad for the Trump administration. It’s good for the rest of us.
You can reach Eoin Higgins on Facebook and Twitter.