The White House doesn't have a communications problem. It has a Trump problem.
In defense of Sean Spicer. Sort of.
You might forgive Sean Spicer and the rest of the White House communications team for not wanting to affix their names to the official denial of The New York Times' scoop that President Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to quash the investigation into Michael Flynn. This is just not a happy time to be a White House communication staffer.
Not only does your boss keep making your job absurdly difficult, every time another crisis comes along, you see stories about the possibility of a White House "shakeup," inevitably featuring the possibility that you and your colleagues will be shown the door. Those potential replacements are located using the time-honored "Trump saw her on Fox News" technique, with the presumption that they'd be better able to shape the news to the president's liking.
That shakeup may well happen eventually. But as we mock Sean Spicer and the rest of the Trump comm team for their deceptions and evasions, we should acknowledge that there is no group of ace Republican spokespeople waiting in the wings who could be doing their jobs any better. This White House doesn't have a communication problem. It has a Trump problem.
Ask yourself: What would you do if your boss lied — on television no less! — about something that could be construed as obstruction of justice, and then a few days later, written proof surfaced that he was lying? Or what would you do if your boss told you to go in front of the cameras and pass on a dubious piece of spin, and you did as you were told, and then a few hours later he flatly contradicted the thing he had told you to say, making you look like a liar and a fool?
That's what keeps happening to Trump staffers.
For instance, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, it was decided that the White House line would be that he did so on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Sean Spicer dutifully told reporters that Rosenstein had on his own initiative undertaken a review of Comey's performance. "It was all him," Spicer said. "No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision." But a day later, not only did we learn that the president himself instructed Rosenstein to write the review, Trump told NBC's Lester Holt that he was going to fire Comey regardless of the conclusion Rosenstein gave him.
Something similar happened with regard to the bombshell report in The Washington Post that Trump revealed highly sensitive information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in an Oval Office meeting, apparently because he wanted to impress them. When the story broke, White House officials went out to deny it, only to have Trump admit it hours later on Twitter, forcing them to change their story from It never happened to It happened and it was completely fine.
Now let me share with you a bit of behind-the-scenes color from White House reporter Adrian Carrasquillo, to give you a sense of the agony of the White House communication staff. The people referenced are senior adviser Stephen Bannon, communications director Michael Dubke, Spicer, and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:
Oof. You can understand why their nerves are a little raw. The president keeps creating one crisis after another, and then when it blows up, he blames the people he has shoved in front of the cameras to repeat every absurd thing that pops into his head. For Spicer it started with his very first press briefing, when he had to prove his loyalty to Trump by claiming "this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period," and it hasn't let up since. After the latest Russia story broke, "the president again was frustrated with Dubke and Spicer, according to someone with knowledge of the situation," according to another inside report. As though it was their fault and not his.
Since the communication people are Trump's public face, he inevitably drags them down to his level. "Even people who have built up reputations for integrity over a lifetime of public service, they risk squandering it in this administration," said Republican political consultant Steve Schmidt. I don't know if Sean Spicer is an honest guy in his daily life, but he's not a dishonest spokesperson because of some inherent moral failure. He's a dishonest spokesperson because his boss orders him to lie.
As a result, Trump has left his people less able to do their jobs. By now every reporter can't help but assume there's no better than a 50-50 chance that anything a Trump spokesperson tells them is true — and not only that, it might get contradicted by a Trump tweet a few hours hence, at which time the same spokesperson will come before them with a completely new story. Only four months into the Trump presidency they have no credibility left, and though they've certainly played their own parts in that degradation, the greatest responsibility lies with the man in the Oval Office.
Which is why getting a new communication team won't help — Trump could hire the ghost of Clarence Darrow to stand in the White House briefing room, and he wouldn't do much better than the current group of sad sacks who are subjected to the daily humiliation of defending this president's actions. As they're learning all too painfully, you can't keep your integrity if you're a mouthpiece for someone who has none of his own.