Sean Spicer On Trump's Inauguration Records And The Role Of The Press Secretary
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Before I sat down to talk with former press secretary Sean Spicer yesterday, I did something I sometimes do. I tweeted, I'm about to tape this interview. What would you ask? Well, you replied, and it seems the question many of you want to put to the former White House press secretary is some variation of, why don't you go jump off a cliff?
Well, we didn't ask him that question, but we did want to talk to him about why he became such a polarizing figure and why he remains so nearly a year after leaving the White House. When Sean Spicer came in to talk about his new memoir, he conceded he was controversial from his very first briefing.
Let me ask you about the moment that set the tone for your tenure as press secretary. This was day one of the Trump administration. You're laughing or maybe cringing. I want to play for this - this is...
SEAN SPICER: Little of both.
KELLY: ...The day right after the inauguration. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SPICER: Inaccurate numbers involving crowd size were also tweeted. No one had numbers because the National Park Service which controls the National Mall does not put any out. This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration period.
KELLY: The controversy over the size of the crowd that came to watch the president's inauguration - you say you walked out of that briefing, walked in to see the president expecting to get a pat on the back. What happened?
SPICER: (Laughter) Little bit of the opposite. I - if you asked me for one thing that I probably want a do-over on, that's it. There was nobody happy with me that night.
KELLY: And the president told you so.
SPICER: Not in so many words, but he was very clear that that was not a performance that he was pleased with and that...
SPICER: I mean, for a lot of reasons, and I go into this in the book. I had not done my due diligence in talking with him and saying, do you want me to go in like this? Do you want me to make it clear this? I sort of thought I knew what he wanted and went and did it. And I'll be honest. If I could have a do-over on that day, I'd take it every day of the week. It's - no one - I mean, it was an unbelievably lonely - I had had the opportunity of a lifetime. I moved here 20-something years ago as a - from Rhode Island, not a particularly political family and worked my way up through politics, thought I had my dream job. And here I was on day one, you know, getting mocked (laughter) for the suit that I was wearing, getting blown up from every person in the world. And, you know, like I said, I can only say that if I had a do-over, that's, you know - I'd start on day one.
KELLY: Here's my question because I think people would have been prepared to cut you a little bit of slack. It was your first time ever briefing. We're all human. The thing is, when you came out and did a full briefing again on Monday, you didn't walk it back. You didn't correct it. You doubled down.
SPICER: Well, I think what I made clear is - and here's part of the reason I want a do-over - is that when I went out Monday, the point that I tried to make was that if you look at the totality of the people that watched it, that looked at it on - whether it was Twitter - you know, you could watch - all of these new platforms were available. And it wasn't a partisan statement. It was just to say, hey, now more people from around the world can watch something that they've never watched before. We had had record web traffic reported by several sites. Twitter had reported that it - one of their highest days ever in terms of people watching a live thing. We thought, hey - now, should I have done a better job - absolutely.
KELLY: There was one person who loved that performance, and that was the comedian Melissa McCarthy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) I am being straight with you. I'm telling you exactly what President Trump told me.
BOBBY MOYNIHAN: (As Glenn Thrush) But what if he's lying to you?
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) He - but he wouldn't do that. He's my friend.
KELLY: That's Melissa McCarthy. She debuted her impression of you on "Saturday Night Live"...
SPICER: She did.
KELLY: ...A few weeks after that whole inauguration crowd size hullabaloo. Is that painful to listen to now? What was your reaction?
SPICER: (Laughter) It gets better with time.
KELLY: Yeah - not so funny when you first heard it.
SPICER: It was - look; I can take a good joke. I looked - like I said, I knew I stepped in it that day, and I deserve that. It was funny. She's a talented actor. Her job is to be funny. And there's no question in subsequent, you know, portraits it was a little over-the-top and I think mean at times. But she is a very talented actor, and I think that first one was both well-deserved and very funny.
KELLY: What was the president's reaction?
SPICER: I think it reminded him of my screw-up, and I don't think he was as pleased because, again, it was a reinforcement of the fact that I hadn't put my best foot forward.
KELLY: So here's the big-picture question I want to get at with you 'cause you're write over and over in the book how you define the job of press secretary. And you say you see it as communicating the thoughts and views of the president...
KELLY: ...When he or she isn't there to do so. Is it not also to provide accurate information to the American people?
SPICER: Sure. But I think that part of it is if you ask what somebody thinks - you know, what's the president feel about this; what does he think about it - your job isn't to interpret that. It's to say, OK, you asked me how I felt. And if he felt, you know, angry or betrayed or whatever, that's a subjective description that that person can tell you whether it's right or wrong or whether it's based off of something. But if you're asking why does he think the following - and your job is to say, he believes the following. That's it.
KELLY: What I'm asking is, when the president says or tweets something that is demonstrably untrue, is your job as his spokesperson to go up and parrot it from the lectern, or is it to correct the record?
SPICER: No. My job is to say, if someone says, you know, what is - you know, in many cases, as I did say, the tweet speaks for itself. It's not to interpret for him. I don't think - that's not - the job was...
KELLY: But when the tweet contains something that's factually inaccurate...
SPICER: That's - but again, it's not - as a spokesperson, you're not up there to play referee. It's to say, this is what he thinks and believes.
KELLY: To cite an example that happened on your watch, when the president woke up one Saturday morning last year and tweeted that President Obama had ordered surveillance on Trump Tower, should you have corrected the record?
SPICER: I think what we - I mean, he, based on intelligence or whatever, tweeted that. I don't have access to the same information he did. And I said, Mr. President, we're getting questions on that. He said, this is how I want you to respond to it. That's my job.
KELLY: Was there ever a moment where you wish you had stood up to him and said, Mr. President, that's not in fact what happened?
SPICER: Well, there were plenty of times when we would have a discussion before something went out and I said, OK, Mr. President, this is how the press is going to react or this is, you know, how I think a lot of people are going to interpret that same statement or whatever. And he would sometimes say, oh, that's a good point. Sometimes he would say, I want you to say that I still believe the following.
Your job as a spokesperson, whether it's the president of the United States or any of the principal that I've served, is to provide them the best counsel and advice you can. But at the end of the day, your job is to communicate their thoughts when they are unable to do so.
KELLY: Would you ever do it again if 10 years from now a Republican were in the White House and they called?
SPICER: I am honored that I got the opportunity to do that. I miss the people that I got to work with on a daily basis. But I think there's a long list of other people that would be much better to take that next task.
KELLY: But in your heart, would...
SPICER: I'd like...
KELLY: Would you...
SPICER: I mean, look; I...
KELLY: Would you be happy to get that call?
SPICER: I - you know, you always want to be wanted (laughter). But, you know, I'd love to be involved, but I don't know that that level of intensity and scrutiny is something that I don't know that I want to deal with again.
KELLY: Sean Spicer - his new book is "The Briefing: Politics, The Press, And The President." Thanks for coming in.
SPICER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.