As White House press secretary, Sean Spicer had an up-close view of two events central to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation: the firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey.
And Spicer’s narrative of these events in his new book, The Briefing, is revealing — because of what it leaves out. The book’s passages describing Flynn and Comey’s firings are misleading and incomplete, and the description of Flynn’s firing contains several sloppy errors.
Spicer is surely well aware that offering accounts of events that are the subject of an ongoing investigation could pose problems for his former colleagues, should his account differ from theirs — so he unsurprisingly avoids doing so. He lawyered up and sat for an interview with Mueller’s team.
It was clear, too, that we shouldn’t expect any major revelations in Spicer’s book. Rather than writing a tell-all, he wrote more of a defense of himself. It is clearly aimed at a Trump-loving audience. (If you want to read about how Donald Trump, contrary to popular belief, “is a man of Christian instincts and feeling,” then this is the book for you.)
Still, the accounts of the Flynn and Comey firings stand out for what they leave out — and how they leave misleading impressions. So, yes, the book is a whole lot like one of Spicer’s podium performances.
Spicer’s account of Michael Flynn’s firing omits Sally Yates’s warning
The exact circumstances around Trump’s firing of Michael Flynn nearly a year and a half ago remain murky, but here’s a refresher on some key events:
- In December 2016, after President Obama announced new sanctions on Russia, Flynn secretly contacted Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and told him to urge Moscow not to retaliate.
- In mid-January 2017, after news broke that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken on the day of Obama’s announcement, Sean Spicer and Mike Pence told the public that the pair did not actually talk about sanctions at all.
- In late January, after Trump was sworn in, Flynn lied to the FBI, telling them, again, that he and Kislyak didn’t discuss sanctions. Aware from intelligence intercepts of Kislyak that this statement was false, acting Attorney General Sally Yates then warned the White House that Flynn had misled Pence and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
- Trump took no action against Flynn for 18 days after Yates’s warning. Only after a pair of Washington Post reports revealed, first, that they did discuss sanctions, and second, the warning from Yates, did Trump finally fire Flynn on the night of February 13. The White House story was that Trump ousted Flynn because he had misled Pence.
There have long been many questions about what happened here. What was Trump’s involvement in, and knowledge of, what Flynn was doing, and the false story he was telling others? Why did he wait so long to fire Flynn? And why did he eventually do it?
Spicer’s book covers the topic in a brief, error-riddled passage that leaves out one crucial part of the story — Yates’s warning about Flynn — entirely. It begins:
During the transition, the media claimed General Flynn had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on more than one occasion — contrary to what Flynn had told me, Reince [Priebus], and Vice President Pence.
Already, this account is inaccurate. The report that kicked off the controversy revealed that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken on the phone, not that they’d “met.”
In any case, Spicer continues with his explanation for why he put out the false story, saying Flynn just misled him:
I questioned Flynn about it again, and he quickly pulled out his phone to show me a text message to Kislyak, wishing him a happy new year and offering his condolences for members of the Russian Red Army Choir who had died in a plane crash. Flynn convinced me that the media was chasing a non-story. Vice President Pence and I gave flat-out denials that General Flynn had any important contacts with Russian officials.
Next, though, Spicer makes the bold move of skipping over Yates’s warning about Flynn entirely. He instead jumps ahead in the story a few weeks, to the Post stories published in the few days before Flynn’s firing:
But then in a high-profile interview with Adam Entous of the Washington Post, Flynn implied that he had conducted more extensive conversations with the Russian ambassador.
There are more errors here. Entous confirmed to me that Flynn’s interview was with the Post’s Karen DeYoung (though the quote eventually featured in a story co-bylined by Entous). Also, the news from it was that Flynn had denied to DeYoung, yet again, that he’d talked sanctions with Kislyak — but that afterward, his spokesperson tried to walk back the denial.
In any case, Spicer closes off the section with the laughable claim that Trump had “promptly” fired Flynn — which he can only make because he leaves out Yates’s warning from 18 days earlier:
General Flynn’s evolving account of his Russian contacts — and the fact that he had misled us — sank his credibility as national security advisor. The president promptly fired him.
The reality is that Trump was so strangely non-prompt in getting rid of Flynn that Mueller’s investigators have asked multiple White House officials to extensively map out what happened on every one of those 18 days, NBC News has reported.
Spicer closes off this misleading, error-riddled passage by complaining about an erroneous ABC News report on Flynn published months after Spicer himself stepped down. “There is also no question,” he writes, “that some in the media got this story wrong.”
In chronicling Comey’s firing, Spicer skips the bombshell leaks that prompted Mueller’s appointment
One example of a time when Trump did act “promptly” was when, on the very next morning after Flynn’s firing, he asked then-FBI Director James Comey to stay for a one-on-one chat in the Oval Office and (per Comey) urged him to let the investigation into Flynn go.
That’s not mentioned in Spicer’s book either, of course, because the official White House position is to deny that it happened, even though Comey documented it immediately in a memo.
In any case, Spicer eventually gives his version of another event of great importance to Mueller’s probe — Trump’s firing of Comey on May 9, 2017.
Spicer says he got barely any heads up. “Around 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, I was called into the Oval Office,” he writes. Then, he says, he was presented with the infamous letters from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticizing Comey and recommending his firing.
Spicer writes that both Trump and then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus insisted on making the announcement as quickly as possible, and that the question of why this was happening hardly came up.
“We need to get this out,” the president said.
The president’s advisers wanted to slow this process, and I agreed. ... The president acknowledged each point but kept coming back to “We need to get this out.”
...“Let’s go, let’s go — let’s get this done,” the president said. As Donald Trump spoke, Reince turned to me as if to intensify the command “Get it done now.”
... [after he leaves the room] Meanwhile, my phone kept ringing. Reince was now telling me sternly, “Get it out now.”
Trump and Priebus’s obsession with speed here is interesting, though Spicer’s purpose in bringing it up is clearly not to allege anything nefarious, but rather to excuse his own positively horrendous rollout of the firing in the press.
As the passage continues, Spicer:
- Insists that he didn’t really hide from reporters in the bushes to avoid questions on the topic
- Attempts to offer a generous explanation of Trump’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt two days later in which he revealed he was going to fire Comey regardless of what Rosenstein recommended, and tied the decision to his gripes with the Russia investigation
- Gives the mildest of criticisms of Trump’s bizarre tweeted threat that he might have “tapes” of his conversations with Comey (“Why this particular shot across the bow?”)
Somehow, though, Spicer manages to leave out any discussion the series of bombshell leaks in the eight days between Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment — even though he’s the press secretary. These stories reported, per their sources, that:
- Trump had requested Comey’s “loyalty” at a private dinner
- Trump had revealed classified intelligence to Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting just after Comey’s firing
- Trump had requested that Comey end the investigation into Flynn
How did Spicer and his colleagues react when reporters inquired about, and eventually published, these stories? What did they think about them? How did they affect his view of what happened with Comey’s firing?
If you want those questions answered, you’ve bought the wrong book. Instead, to end his section on Comey’s firing, Spicer pivots to discuss ... wait for it ... Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“A sense of injustice over double standards has been a sore point for Republicans for years,” he gripes. Describing emails from Clinton to Huma Abedin found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, he closes out his section with this:
Imagine if any one of us had illegally copied classified information and placed it on the computer of a sex offender. How many special prosecutors would that entail?
It is this kind of double standard that stokes Donald Trump’s ire and erupts in his tweets and statements.
In other words: In conclusion, the president is right, and his critics are hypocrites.