Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer Discusses Russia And His New Book, 'The Briefing'
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In the early months of the Trump presidency, Sean Spicer's White House press briefings were mandatory viewing. Spicer became the story early on, the messenger for a president who seemed to be at war with the media. Spicer's relationship with the truth was questioned from the get-go. Here's ABC's Jonathan Karl grilling Spicer at his first official briefing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JONATHAN KARL: Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium, and will you pledge never to knowingly say something that is not factual.
SEAN SPICER: It is. It's an honor to do this. And, yes, I believe that we have to be honest with the American people. I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.
KELLY: The era of alternative facts had begun. Spicer reflects on this era in his new book "The Briefing: Politics, The Press, And The President." When he stopped by yesterday to talk with me about it, I asked about the competing facts that have emerged since Monday's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sean Spicer, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
SPICER: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: I want to start with this week. I was in the room in Helsinki when President Trump said he sees no reason to believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and then on Tuesday, he said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election - two statements that are diametrically opposed. How would you have handled the messaging as press secretary...
KELLY: ...If you were back in that job this week.
SPICER: Well, thankfully I'm not in the sense that...
KELLY: This week didn't make you want to go back.
SPICER: Well, no, I mean, it's just - it's - I've said this before, but I was honored to serve. I'm glad I did the job. But it's an intense, intense job that there's - it's unrelenting. You don't get to just take a little time out. And so, you know, I'm glad that he made the comments he did on Tuesday. I think the White House has put out a series of his prior statements that he's made throughout the past 18 months with respect to Russia. I think that's helpful - the more that they can separate the two issues between collusion and the meddling, which there has been decades of Russia doing, and understanding that we've got to address it and combat it.
KELLY: And that's what he was asked about and where he now says he misspoke. He says, I left out a few letters.
KELLY: I said would. I meant wouldn't. But as the AP reporter Jonathan Lemire, the one who asked the question that led to all this - as he said, you know, to buy that explanation, you have to ignore and set aside the entire rest of that press conference.
SPICER: Well, like I said, I'm glad that I'm out promoting a book and not having to deal with that right now.
KELLY: Whose job is it to persuade the president to walk back a statement when it...
SPICER: I don't know.
KELLY: ...Blows up.
SPICER: And it may be has his own, I mean, in the sense that the president's a big consumer of media, and he may have seen how it was being interpreted and said, I need to go out and do that. I've seen it work both ways. And I think the president will sometimes come to his own conclusions very quickly and say, as you all know, that's not what I meant; I need to go do this, or we need to do this, or you need to do it for me in the sense of put out a statement. Or in some cases, the staff may have come and said, Mr. President, we know what you - I think you meant, but this is what you have to do. But there's no cookie-cutter approach.
KELLY: Were you persuaded by the about-face this week as somebody out of the White House now?
SPICER: Here's the thing. I've seen enough inside to know that he understands the threat that Russia has posed and the actions that they've taken. He has seen the intelligence. I know what he thinks. I've seen him talk about it. And I think at the end of the day, the question is, what do we want to do to move on? We can parse whether or not - what he should have said or we could have. I think he did the right thing on Tuesday.
KELLY: And not the right thing on Monday.
SPICER: Well, I mean, in the sense that he had to go back and make it clear that he should have - I mean, so, yes, would you rather have done it right the first time? I'm sure.
KELLY: You've fielded a lot of questions about Russia in your months as press secretary, and you complain about that a little bit in the book. You reporters were all obsessed with Russia, and you missed all this important stuff that the administration was doing when you were...
KELLY: ...You know, focused on Russia and collusion and all this. But do you not think it's a big deal that Russia interfered in the democratic process?
SPICER: One hundred - I think that the idea that Russia or any other entity tries to meddle with our democracy and the integrity of our voting system is a big problem. We should condemn it, and then we should do everything that we can to prevent it from happening again. But...
KELLY: And reporters should ask questions.
SPICER: Absolutely, but there was no concern about - I mean, I haven't heard one question get asked to a former Obama administration official. They knew about this information. Where...
KELLY: That - I've asked those questions myself, as have all my colleagues, when the Obama administration was still in power. The questions to you were about what's happening now.
SPICER: Fair enough. But my point is - is that a year and a half into the investigation - look; with all due respect, a lot of media folks got the election wrong. There's a little bit of defensiveness that goes on for folks on my side of the aisle to feel like at some point, we had gone around for months talking about how we had put together a superior ground game, a superior data operation, and we were outright dismissed time and time again by folks in the media that said Hillary's campaign is far and away better than what you guys have done. We go ahead, and we win the election.
And then it turns to, well, Russia had to have something to do with it. And I don't think that there's ever been a sense of, you know what? You guys did do something right; we should go back and look at it. And that theme and that narrative has continued where it's trying to find some way to excuse overlooking the campaign that we did put together.
KELLY: You're talking about the campaign, which prompts me to ask you about Paul Manafort...
KELLY: ...Who chaired the Trump presidential campaign...
KELLY: ...And who is now behind bars, indicted on multiple federal charges. In the book, you write about Paul Manafort, and you write that he whipped the campaign into shape, that he hired a bunch of good people, that he provided structure, that he got stuff done. That's in the book.
KELLY: I want to play you a cut of tape from 2017.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SPICER: And then obviously there's been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.
KELLY: That's you...
KELLY: ...In the press briefing last year.
SPICER: I did recognize that voice.
KELLY: You did recognize that voice - still sound the same. But which is it? Did he play a limited role, or did he whip everything into shape and provide structure?
SPICER: Right. And I think the point was - is that the campaign at that time - Paul came in. He had worked for Dole, Ford, Reagan. There was a level of maturity and professionalism that needed to come in to get ready before the convention.
KELLY: But you and others in the administration have made a huge point of distancing yourself from the man who chaired the campaign.
SPICER: Correct. But Paul, regardless of how long he was there, understood the mechanism or the machinations of a convention probably better than most people on either side of the aisle. He brought that level of gravitas at a certain point. He may not have stayed a long time, but the bottom line is - is that at that point in time, what the campaign needed was somebody who had experience in going into conventions.
KELLY: You're saying these two statements are are not mutually exclusive, that he brought gravitas to the campaign and that he was only there for a limited number of months.
KELLY: You also write in the book about how in your view we in the Washington press corps obsess too much over palace intrigue...
KELLY: ...About who's in, who's out. At the same time, the Trump administration has generated quite a lot of palace intrigue, and it does matter in terms of Americans understanding who has the president's ear, who's advising him.
SPICER: That's a good point because I don't necessarily believe that they - that you can't have both. I think there are plenty of times when - you're right - at a certain key position, whether or not that person was coming or going or in favor or out makes sense - right? - because you want to know, when it comes to national security policy or economic security, does the person theoretically supposed to be leading that - do they have the president's ear? Do they have the power of persuasion? Are they respected within? I understand that. There's a difference between that and a complete obsession with who is inside a room or out of a room. And it wasn't about the policy. It wasn't about the results.
KELLY: That's part of our talk with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Stay with us for part two elsewhere on the program when I ask about his infamous briefing on the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.