Regrets? Sean Spicer should have a few — and not too few to mention. But as this former White House press secretary takes off on his image rehabilitation tour, it seems that his remorse, which should be galactic in size, is limited to his statement about Trump’s “historic” inauguration.
That famous lie —maybe not quite as famous as “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but pretty close — was the centerpiece of Spicer’s appearance at the 69th Primetime Emmys on Sunday, when he was both the joke and jokester as he rode a faux-presidential podium onto the stage, shouted about crowd size, smiled genially, and vanished.
The next morning, The New York Times published an interview with Spicer. “Sean Spicer Says He Regrets Berating Reporters Over Inauguration Crowds,” the headline said. Spicer himself didn’t say much more than that, though he “absolutely” did regret making that statement. One wonders, though, if that’s because it was an unseemly lie or because that unseemly lie made Spicer look like a fool. Put me down for five bucks on the latter.
Spicer had said something notably less contrite on Jimmy Kimmel Live the week before.
“He’s the president, he decides,” he told Kimmel. “And that’s what you sign up to do.”
Indeed, Spicer signed up to do a lot more than exaggerate crowd sizes. The former Republican National Committee communications director knew exactly what he was signing up for when he joined the Trump administration and it wasn’t to sell oatmeal cookies. “He told all the reporters in D.C. before he worked for Trump how awful Trump was,” mused Jon Favreau, the former Obama speechwriter, on a recent episode of Pod Save America. “Every reporter knows it, every reporter’s told us stories. And then he went to work for him anyway.”
Nor did Spicer leave because his scrupules finally got the best of him; rather, it was a tiff with incoming communications director Anthony Scaramucci that drove Spicer out. Principle had nothing to do with it.
Spicer now wants the forgiving embrace of the American public, even if signs of genuine contrition are notably absent. That’s because he’s given no indication that he will apologize for the many things he said and did that do, in fact, necessitate an apology.
Lying about inaugural sizes is one thing; lying about election fraud is quite another. But that’s exactly what Spicer did just three days later, when he promulgated Trump’s lie about millions of people voting illegally for Hillary Clinton in New York and California.
“ He continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him,” Spicer said on January 24. As he would frequently do in subsequent months, Spicer put some distance between Trump’s dearly-held delusions — he continues to maintain that belief — and what the longtime Republican operative must have known to be the plain truth. But he still amplified Trump’s untruths. Clever wording doesn’t change that.
Spicer also defended Trump’s preposterous claim that President Barack Obama conducted warrantless surveillance at Trump Tower. The Washington Post described one mid-March press conference in which Spicer stood by the wiretapping claims as “angry, lonely,” adjectives that seemed to capture Spicer’s mood throughout the entirety of his brief White House career. At one point during the press conference on wiretapping, Spicer essentially mounted a you-ask-him defense of Trump’s claims. “Look, he was very clear about this last night. He talked about it as you said.”
As questions about National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn and his ties to Russia became impossible to ignore, Spicer resorted to what was quickly becoming a favored Trump strategy: blame Obama. “When Gen. Flynn came into the White House, he had an active security clearance that was issued during the Obama administration,” Spicer said on April 27, neglecting the fact that Obama fired Flynn and later warned Trump against hiring him.
Spicer was a joke long before he appeared on the Emmys. He once seemed to compare Hitler favorably to Bashar Assad because, in Spicer’s version of history, the Nazi leader had at least refrained from using chemical weapons in his “Holocaust centers.” Even something as silly as Trump’s “cofveve” tweet found a dogged defender in Spicer. “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant," Spicer declared humorlessl y. Sure, brother. Anything you say.
Finally, there was the night Trump fired FBI Director James S. Comey because Comey was proving more loyal to the U.S. Constitution than the Trump Organization. Spicer soberly digested the news and... went to hide in the bushes. That’s not a metaphor, some coy Beltway reference. He literally took refuge in White House shrubbery, in what had to be the defining moment of his career.
Eventually, Spicer simply stopped holding on-air, on-the-record press briefings, so embarrassing had these become. “I asked Spicer if we could turn the cameras on at today's briefing. He ignored the question,” tweeted Jim Acosta of CNN. Rosie Gray of The Atlantic asked Stephen K. Bannon, then the chief White House political strategist, why Spicer was no longer willing to stand in front of cameras.
“Sean got fatter,” Bannon texted back.
It was getting to be time to go.
Of course, if it wasn’t Spicer up there defending Trump’s falsehoods, somebody else would do the job (Sarah Huckabee Sanders has it now) So why are we mad at Spicer for doing his job? Partly, he is a receptacle for the anger of many Americans at Trump, who in his vanity sends out men and women to spread claims about voter fraud and crowd sizes. He sets up the likes of Spicer and Huckabee to fail. But they help that failure along.
So, then, a second question: Why would anyone celebrate that failure? Why would Harvard invite him to be a fellow at its institute of politics? Why would Stephen Colbert, the Emmys host, welcome him onto the stage? Although outrage comes easily these days, Sean Spicer’s rehabilitation is, indeed, outrageous.
“Sean Spicer doesn’t get to be in on the fucking joke,” says Pod Save America co-host Jon Lovett.
Colbert actually got it right when he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live the night after Spicer’s interview earlier this month. Kimmel expressed pity for Spicer, but Colbert didn’t.
“He wants to be forgiven, but he won’t regret anything he did. You’ve got to regret to be forgiven,” Colbert said.
One might go a little further: What Spicer wants is not forgiveness but what that forgiveness would lead to: high-paid speeches (you know, like the ones Hillary Clinton gave), a television gig, a book deal.
Forgiveness is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Neither, for that matter, does dignity.