This is another installment of SpicerWatch, an occasional dive into the absurdities of the White House press briefing and the media’s obsession with spectacle.
A baseline test for the effectiveness of a press secretary is to compare their performance with that of a hypothetical stranger yanked off the street. Imagine you asked someone at random about, say, the photo of Kathy Griffin holding a bloodied model of the president’s head.
If they didn’t know anything, they might shrug and refer you to President Trump’s tweet:
Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2017
And that’s exactly what White House press secretary Sean Spicer did at Wednesday’s 12-minute press briefing, where all the questions were answered tersely and with equal vagueness. “The president and the first lady have made comments about that, and I will let that stand,” Spicer said of the Kathy Griffin kerfuffle. Next question.
The top matter of the day was climate change. The New York Times and Politico reported Wednesday morning that Trump is planning to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, the international agreement — now ratified by more than 147 countries — to reduce the man-made carbon emissions that are causing global warming.
On this topic, too, Spicer had nothing to offer. Were the reports accurate? When did the president make up his mind? What influenced his decision-making? “I think the president’s comments on this, that he’ll be making a decision on this in the next couple of days, stand,” Spicer said.
This is neither more or less information than one could glean from the president’s Twitter feed, where Trump said this morning: “I will be announcing my decision on the Paris Accord over the next few days. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Efforts to follow up were rebuffed. What factors was Trump considering? Did his Europe trip affect his thinking at all? Who was he talking to?
“What I am saying is that when the president has a decision to make, he will let it be known,” Spicer said.
What about developments in the Trump-Russia scandal? As several outlets reported on Wednesday, ex-FBI director James Comey says he will testify next week that Trump pressured him to drop the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“We are referring all matters regarding this to outside White House counsel,” Spicer said.
Well, does Trump have any views on the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte recently declared martial law in part of the country?
“I think that you should touch base with the State Department on that,” Spicer offered.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Spicer, who is making the best of what little he has to work with. At their best, press secretaries condense and repackage their bosses’ top ideas. But who thinks Trump has studied Philippine politics at length? Who believes the administration would have anything substantive to say about the Russia probe, aside from what Trump has already tweeted?
Today’s proceedings illustrate another sense in which press briefings of late have become matters of pure spectacle. Now that these events are regularly broadcast live on cable news, posing a question is a way for reporters to make a statement. It doesn’t matter that nothing ever gets answered, or that Spicer at this point could be convincingly replaced by Apple’s Siri.
The best example of such a rhetorical question came from Yahoo News’s Hunter Walker, who made the obligatory inquiry about “covfefe,” Trump’s viral Twitter typo.
“Do you think people should be concerned that the president posted somewhat of an incoherent tweet last night and that it then stayed up for hours?” he asked.
“Uh, no,” Spicer said.
“Why did it stay up for so long? Is no one watching this?” Walker pressed.
“I think that the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” Spicer said.
Since the press briefing took place off camera today, it’s unclear from the audio broadcast if Spicer was trying to be funny. In any case, this was one instance in which an artificial intelligence routine was actually more helpful than the White House press secretary: