Only a few days into his official capacity as White House press secretary, Sean Spicer has already entrenched himself in a conflict with the press over how the media represents President Donald Trump. Following a campaign season in which he and Trump routinely accused the press of unfairly maligning Trump’s candidacy, Spicer most recently lashed out at journalists for under-reporting the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. News organizations such as the New York Times have testily shot back with facts proving his claims wrong.
It was against this backdrop that Spicer began his first official White House press briefing on Monday, January 23. He came under intense scrutiny over Trump’s next steps on a variety of policy issues, ranging from climate change to the US-Mexico border wall, as well as the discussion of truth in reporting. Several reporters chimed in to question his false statements on Saturday—including his claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was larger than the crowd at Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009—and his commitment to truth as a whole. Spicer affirmed, unsurprisingly, that he does indeed pledge to tell the truth at all times, but he added that situationally, the specifics of the truth he tells may differ from someone else’s. Crucially, Spicer asserted that he “intends” to tell the truth.
This harkens back to his earlier definition of fake news during his appearance with David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs at a University of Chicago Institute of Politics event in early January. During their conversation, Spicer defined fake news as any intentionally false story. But he also seemed to claim that any reporting mistake means that reporters were not sufficiently committed to their job of investigating the facts. Thus, not only was the Clinton pizza shop child sex ring allegation fake news, but so was an inaccurate (and quickly retracted) December story in POLITICO about the purposeful exclusion of the CEO of Twitter from a Trump meeting.
During the Monday press conference, Spicer appeared to back off from this broad definition of fake news. He likened his own responsibility for truth to the media’s, in that both should be permitted the occasional mistake as long as it is corrected. This would indicate that he is no longer labeling journalistic error as fake news, because then the moniker would apply to him as well. But in an effort to shift attention from his own recent blunders, Spicer continued to make jabs at errors the media has made. In particular, he highlighted the false report in TIME Magazine that President Trump had ordered the removal of a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office.
Spicer also addressed his earlier squabble with the media over the nature of Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community. As revelations about Russia’s attempts to influence the election in his favor were publicized, Trump viciously disparaged the CIA. More recently, however, Trump has claimed to admire those who serve with the agency. Spicer attempted to square this circle by explaining that Trump only held rancor towards certain CIA leaders, not against the agent workforce in general. He noted, as he has before, that Trump was greeted with great enthusiasm when he visited CIA headquarters.
The incessant pressure from the reporters in the room kept Spicer from what was clearly his objective during the briefing: portraying Trump as a down-to-earth man of the people. Calling Trump a “listening president” whenever he could, Spicer touted Trump’s recent meetings with congressional officials, business titans, and union leaders as examples of this attitude. Still, these appeals were interspersed with long stretches in which Spicer was on the defensive.
At one point, Spicer appeared to extend an olive branch to the press corps, saying, “I want to make sure we have a healthy relationship.” But it is clear he believed the obstacle to that was the journalists sitting in front of him—and they clearly reciprocated the blame.