Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer spoke at the Institute of Politics (IOP) on Wednesday, January 4, in a wide-ranging discussion about issues including President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter account and the role of journalism. Spicer was joined by former press secretary Robert Gibbs for a conversation moderated by IOP director David Axelrod. The audience anxiously awaited Spicer’s arrival after several students shared their anger because they believed that Spicer’s presence was normalizing the Trump administration.
After short introductions by IOP executive director Steve Edwards and second-year student Josh Parks, an audience member wasted no time in his expressing his grievances. “This is not normal people,” he shouted, “There is an option, which is to stand up!” Edwards immediately asked the audience member to stop, but he continued to shout, so university security escorted him out of the room.
Axelrod then jumped right into a discussion about Trump’s November victory. Spicer, who was Republican National Committee (RNC) director at the time, displayed his sincere surprise at the results of the election. While he did think that Trump would win, Spicer did not predict such a landslide. Spicer also mentioned the continued need for the Republican Party to improve its image among minorities. “We need to do better,” Spicer said. “Philosophically, we have a message that should be much more appealing to a lot of minority communities,” he added.
Following this brief discussion about the election, the majority of the event focused on an exchange regarding fake news and the role of social media in politics today. Axelrod prodded Spicer to share his knowledge of Trump’s Twitter account. Spicer said that he has no control of Trump’s account and is often not even informed before Trump sends out his tweets. “[Trump will] say, ‘I’m going to tweet something,’ or ‘Hey what do you think about this?’ but he drives the train,” he said. Spicer made it clear that he believes that it is important for the president to be able to share his true opinions with the American people and the world. “He is a very strategic thinker,” Spicer said in reference to Trump’s social media presence.
This question of truth permeated all angles of discussion, specifically on the topic of fake news. Spicer told Gibbs that he defined fake news as “reporting that is not at all accurate. That’s fake.” He used the example of a false story about a child sex trafficking ring being run out of a DC pizza parlor as an example of such fake news and pointed to how the need to write a story has tainted journalism. Spicer and Axelrod seemed to diverge at this point, as Spicer assigned blame to reporters for using faulty data throughout the campaign cycle, whereas Axelrod believed that the intentions were more important than the inevitable mistakes that may arise in journalistic practice. Spicer used this discussion about truth to explain how he values Trump’s integrity as a man of service. He stated that Trump would never lie about any issue and believes it is antithetical to the position that he will soon hold.
During the Q&A session, students continued to pressure Spicer on the need to build trust between the Trump administration and the American people. After some challenging and thoughtful questions, Spicer closed the event, remarking that he was glad to be leaving “vomit free,” in reference to fourth-year Jake Bittle’s statement on Fox News earlier that week.
The full video of the event can be found here.