Sean Spicer tried to go from combative to cuddly. And he almost made it.
In his first actual press briefing, the new press secretary on Monday rebounded from an angry disaster of a monologue late Saturday by cutting a more traditional, measured pose that was still revealing about a new press order at The White House.
He dispensed with again throwing down a gauntlet against a press allegedly spreading lies about this boss. But he still exhibited a sense of grievance that the press has continually sought to undermine Trump’s campaign, “credibility,” early presidency “and the movement he represents.”
“It’s demoralizing,” he said, referring to what he depicted as the media’s unfairness toward President Trump and a supposedly constantly and demeaning “narrative” about him.
Until he aired that obviously underlying resentment, the very long session was notable for mostly not being terribly notable.
He’d opened with a very traditional, measured recitation of President Trump’s day, including a session with business leaders and a largely symbolic executive order to ditch President Obama’s Pacific trade deal.
His demeanor was a far cry from the rhetorically combustible Saturday appearance, where he dwelled on allegations that the press undercounted the Inauguration Day crowd and intentionally tweeted other falsehoods.
And he was in apparently far greater command of facts than Saturday, when he stated clear mistruths about the size of the crowd and other matters, including ridership on the D.C. Metro on Inauguration Day compared to President Obama’s first Inaugural.
When it came to whom he initially called upon — surely a premeditated decision meant to symbolize a new order of priorities — he predictably didn’t follow convention by asking the Associated Press reporter, then those from the major broadcast or cable networks or prominent dailies such as The New York Times.
Instead, the first reporter was called from The New York Post. The Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News Channel, both Trump supporters.
He then called on reporters for CBN, a Christian cable network; Spanish-language Univision; the Fox Business Network; and the black-oriented American Urban Radio Networks.
Keeping with tradition, there was little news made, though surely the session will get a lot more attention (as is true with this piece) than normal due to Saturday’s one-sided set-to.
Ultimately, he called on Julie Pace of The Associated press, as well as reporters for decidedly mainstream organizations such as NPR. The first of the major cable news networks to be called on was, no surprise, Fox News Channel and its new chief White House correspondent, John Roberts, whose Trump campaign reporting tended toward the very sympathetic.
The first broadcast network representative was Jonathan Karl of ABC, who asked Spicer if his intention was to be honest from the podium. It was the start of a Karl-Spicer back-and-forth that left little doubt that, beneath the conciliatory air that Spicer was cutting, there was a thin-skinned White House take on criticism of Trump.
Spicer said his aim was to be candid, in the process backing off the explicit Saturday claims that what he deemed media mistakes were intentional falsehoods.
He did not get into the now famously dubious notion of “alternative facts” put forth Sunday on “Meet the Press” by Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, who was seated (in vivid orange jacket) directly to his right.
But such discussions of errors are “a two-way street,” he said, and argued it was similarly unfair for the press to suggest that he and Trump had intentionally lied.
Metro ridership? Spicer said he passed along information that was not correct. Fine. But was he sticking by the notion that it was the most-watched inauguration ever?
Spicer stuck by that assertion, conflating actual audience on the National Mall with those who watched on TV or by other means, including tablets and phones.
“If you asked me a question about my integrity,” he said, one needs to look at all its audiences and that it would wind up the largest audience ever.
Lost in the back-and-forth with Karl was the falsehood that more people attended in person than attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Trump himself claimed about 1.5 million were there, a gross overstatement (Spicer danced around that topic, ultimately conceding it was not the greatest “in person” crowd ever).
Spicer went back to an erroneous tweet by a Time magazine reporter about the Martin Luther King Jr. bust being removed from the Oval Office. Spicer defended his (and Trump’s) attack on the reporter, Zeke Miller, even after Miller had tweeted his apology for the error Saturday.
“There is a point where we have a right to correct the record,” Spicer said. “We have a right to go out there and correct the record.”
“We want a healthy and open dialogue with the press corps,” he said.
Did the press invent the feud between Trump and the intelligence community, Karl wondered, alluding to Trump’s own assertions that agencies leaked an unsubstantiated dossier about his relations with Russia.
Spicer did not fully respond. But his case is inherently weak on that score, given the evidence that Trump first took after the “intel” community as untrustworthy. It’s a perception that motivated his Saturday trek to the CIA, where he met with the agency and its rank-and-file.
Overall, the questioning was mild, understated and emblematic of the generally decorous air of the White House Briefing Room.
Karl’s queries on Metro ridership and the overall audience on Inauguration Day were as close as one got to even vaguely adversarial.
As far as the actual set-up of the briefing room itself — a topic of much rumor and consternation among the press corps in recent weeks — Spicer did say there would be participation in briefings via Skype of undisclosed media.
That would represent a variation on an Obama administration theme of circumventing traditional press bastions and seeking new audiences in the digital age.
In this case, it would also reflect the obvious Trump animus toward sections of the New York- and Washington-based press.
“Thank you guys, I appreciate it, this was a good first one,” he said in an attempt to wind things down.
It failed. He then took a question from an East Asian reporter on U.S.-India relations, saying little in the process beyond a desire to increase jobs for American workers.
He then concluded, finally, after a marathon session. “Good bless. See you tomorrow.”