This week, famously gaffe-prone White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is in hot water after comparing Adolf Hitler favorably to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and in the process saying that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons—when in fact he gassed millions to death in concentration camps. (As of Wednesday, Spicer was still apologizing.) This is just the latest in a long string of humiliating mistakes from the Trump spokesman. But are Spicer's stumbles just a problem for the administration, or should ordinary people care that the press secretary can't get his foot out of his mouth? Politics writer Eve Peyser and politics editor Harry Cheadle debated that question today. Here's Harry's point:
Sean Spicer, whatever his faults, has a tough job: Every day, he has to go out and explain what the Trump administration is doing and why. Considering that administration is often in conflict with itself and is helmed by people who have a habit of saying things that are flat-out wrong, his task is a difficult one. Spicer started the gig having to defend a ridiculous claim by Donald Trump about the size of his inaugural crowd; his statements on the Republican healthcare plan were denounced by the left and the right; last month he had to back up his boss's bizarre (and still unproven) claim about being wiretapped by Barack Obama. To mangle a Game of Thrones quote, Trump eats and Spicer takes the shit.
As the White House press secretary, Spicer was always going to get raked over the coals by both the media and the Democrats for Trump's unpopular positions and odd tweets. That's the job, of course—he gets nearly $180,000 a year to be the mouthpiece of an administration that has made a muddle of its first three months. Spicer has added to that muddle by constantly committing gaffes, misspeaking, and at time misrepresenting the administration's positions in important ways. That's a problem for White House officials tired of "Spicer Fucks Up Again" headlines, but it's also a problem for the American people.
The job of a press secretary is to spin whatever the president does, but even that spin has a purpose—the public deserves an explanation for why missiles were launched, or why a piece of legislation is supported by the White House. Those explanations are going to be self-serving, but they can be a starting point for analysis and debate. So far, the administration hasn't done a good job of describing, for instance, its stance on Syria, which naturally confuses people, and it's at moments like these when Spicer's incoherence is actually dangerous.
Spicer claiming that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons was bad—as was his accidental claim, while apologizing for that gaffe, that Trump was trying to "destabilize" the Middle East—but he's made worse unforced errors. Earlier this week he implied, wrongly, that Trump would attack Syrian strongman Bashar Assad for using barrel bombs, which would be a major shift in policy, since barrel bombs are used daily in that conflict. He later "clarified" that statement, just as he had to "clarify" in January after saying incorrectly that the White House was endorsing an incredibly harsh import tax on goods from Mexico. Or how about the time he repeated a baseless rumor that the British spied on Trump for Obama, then denied that the White House apologized to the UK over the remark?
In all those cases, Spicer failed at the basic level of communicating what the White House was thinking—and that's his one job. Journalists depend on a press secretary who can represent an administration's positions accurately. Foreign governments want to know what the president's policy is on war and peace and trade. The public would presumably like to hear the White House's side of the story, even if that side of the story isn't the whole truth. When Spicer can't get through a press conference without spouting obvious nonsense that he has to take back hours later, he's failing all those constituencies. By adding an extra layer of incompetence to the already fraught relationship between the White House and the mainstream press, Spicer is helping no one, and looking like a moron to boot. Is that really worth paying him $180,000?
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.