Former White House Press Secretary Uncomfortable With Spicer's First Briefing
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the hour taking another look at the most recent confrontation between President Donald Trump and the media. On Saturday afternoon, President Trump claimed that crowds attending his inauguration were the largest ever to attend an inauguration. The government no longer makes official crowd estimates, but photographic evidence and public transit data show that statement is not true. A short time later the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, reiterated Mr. Trump's claim and also accused journalists of intentionally framing photographs to minimize Friday's inaugural crowds.
At the time there were not accurate figures, but since then local public transit figures from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority have backed up media reports. Seven hundred eighty-two thousand people rode the transit system on the day of President Obama's second inaugural, far more than the 570,000 people who rode Metro on Friday for President Trump's inauguration. Even apart from all that, it was a tense way to start off for the Trump administration and the White House press corps.
To talk more about that we called former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush and also tweeted about all this. And he is with us now. Mr. Fleischer, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ARI FLEISCHER: Glad to be here.
MARTIN: You tweeted that the presser left you, quote, "uncomfortable and concerned, and the press is right to be upset," unquote. How come?
FLEISCHER: Because it's so confrontational right off the bat and because no questions were taken. But I also advise you have to see this as more than a Saturday story. On Monday, Sean is going to be accountable. Sean is going to stand in front of the press and he's going to take questions. He'll either be able to back up what he said and justify it or he'll be pilloried. And that's why I take a long view of what was said. It leaves me uncomfortable, but it's not over yet.
MARTIN: Why does it leave you uncomfortable?
FLEISCHER: Because I don't like this confrontation. I am much more of a traditionalist. I fought with the press. I wrestled with the press. It comes with the territory. But it can go too far. And that's my concern here. Now, the press, though, I have to say has made itself vulnerable to this. According to the Gallup poll, trust by the American people in the press has never been so low. The American people question whether the press report things accurately and fairly. And it's the worst ratings Gallup has ever shown for our country and for the press. And so the press has invited this vulnerability onto itself, and we're watching this live now on TV.
MARTIN: You tweeted last night and you wrote that this is called a statement you're told to make by the president, and you know the president is watching. Tell us more about that.
FLEISCHER: Well, Michel, as I sat there watching - and I instantly could tell what was going on behind the scenes. And that was Sean Spicer, a man I've known for almost 20 years - he used to work in the Bush administration - was told to do this. I know Sean, and Sean can be tough and combative. That's part of the job. But this clearly was told by the president to Sean to go out and correct what was wrong. And, you know, I try to look at these things from both lenses, the president's and the press's.
From the president's lens, he was falsely accused of removing the bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office. Reporter got it wrong and apologized for it, but still the administration was quickly faulted for something it did not do. I can see why that would anger Donald Trump and the administration. Then when it comes to the crowd sizes, the photo that everybody was talking about that was widely shown on the internet was a picture taken 45 minutes before the swearing-in. I think the only real photo should be the one taken at noon to compare to previous crowd sizes.
Now, at the end of the day, what difference does the crowd size make? But that's how Donald Trump sees these things. He takes everything as a slight. And he is going to fight back against the press corps, which frankly is hostile to him, and he enjoys being hostile right back.
MARTIN: OK, but should the press secretary go out and say things that are not true?
FLEISCHER: Of course not. If Sean believes that what he said is true and accurate, it's his burden now to back it up and to explain it to the press. If the press has got the goods on Sean, that's going to come out in the briefing as well on Monday.
MARTIN: And Sean Spicer ended the press conference with the - well, it wasn't a press conference because he didn't take any questions. It was a statement saying that the Trump White House will go around the mainstream press directly to the people. Is that a warning? What is that? How is that to be interpreted?
FLEISCHER: Well, according to Gallup, just for the record, it's the majority of the public. Trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly has never been so low. And that's among Republicans, Democrats and independents. But the point about going around the press is nothing new. Every president does it. They should do it. The White House press corps should not have a monopoly on the news. But the responsibility of the president and the press secretary to give accurate answers is the same forever. And that's why I have faith in our system as well.
He gave a statement on Saturday. On Monday, the day of reckoning will come where he has to either back it up or not back it up. And I'm very curious to see what facts he can use to establish the things he said about the crowd size. Now, about the bust he's on high ground. About the crowd size, I'm not sure how he's going to argue some of the points he made, but I think he has potentially some arguments he can make. I want to hear them.
MARTIN: In fairness, though, the reporter corrected that incorrect information very quickly, that - I mean, you know, I received both reports within two minutes of each other. And he apologized for the inaccuracy, so...
FLEISCHER: Correct. But here's the point I'm making. When you try to see it through Donald Trump's lens or the lens of any sitting president, you have to ask yourself - why does the press right away suggest that he would have removed it? They believed he would remove it. And why didn't, before they tweet, they ask somebody - did he remove it? That's just how journalism works these days. You run with your suspicions and you run with them fast rather than slowing down to check.
MARTIN: OK, but on the other side of that, running with suspicions and checking with it, isn't part of the press secretary's job to perhaps be a buffer and to say, hey, let's slow down a minute?
FLEISCHER: It is part of the press secretary's job. It's part of the job of others at the White House. But face it, this is not a traditional administration. The people I worked for never would have sent me out to do that. But Donald Trump does. Donald Trump earned the right to try to change Washington and try to change the press corps. He hasn't changed. That's what he was like (laughter) at the campaign. And that's how I expect him to be as president, for better or for worse.
And I've got to say, it feels to me a little bit like this is an internal Washington eruption over things that you just don't do and you don't say in Washington. But in the eyes of most people in the country it's not that big a deal.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, I understand that you - you know, you're a consultant now. You're not in the business of consulting with the media. But I would like to ask you as a person who spent a lot of time on that side - do you have some advice for the media in addressing this going forward?
FLEISCHER: I do. Look, this is going to be very tough on the press because nobody likes to get attacked, and Donald Trump is going to want to regularly attack them. My advice to the media is whether somebody is praising you all the time or attacking you all the time, your job doesn't change. It's to be neutral - to be neutral and to be fair. If they want to get their numbers back up among the American people who trust them to report the news fairly and accurately, which is their core mission, be neutral, be fair.
MARTIN: That's former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. He served in the administration of President George W. Bush. Mr. Fleischer, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
FLEISCHER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.