Returning to a region that gave him valuable schooling in politics and public relations, former White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Friday he wishes he had another chance to handle the inauguration crowd-size controversy that helped define his rocky six months as spokesman for President Donald Trump.
Spicer fielded questions from Tim Burke, publisher of The Palm Beach Post and the Palm Beach Daily News, at a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch that drew about 700 people to the Kravis Center. Spicer also took some audience questions and signed copies of his book, The Briefing: Politics, the Press, and the President.
“I would like to start by asking you if you agree with my assessment that today’s crowd is the largest audience to ever witness a function — period — both in person and around the globe,” Burke asked Spicer, echoing Spicer’s infamous declaration on Jan. 21, 2017, about the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.
“Hold on — you don’t mind if I look at the aerial footage first,” Spicer replied, playing along. After rising from his chair to check out the room, Spicer concluded: “Oh, yeah. Unquestionably.”
Spicer said that he had been instructed by Trump to “go push back” against TV reports that compared Trump’s inaugural crowd unfavorably to the crowd at former President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
“I’ve been very clear that if there was one day in my entire life I’d take a do-over on, that’s 1, 2 and 3,” Spicer said.
“It didn’t go well. I got it,” Spicer said. He said he was trying to get the media to “pivot” from the crowd-size issue and focus on the “enthusiasm” of Trump’s supporters, but he discovered it didn’t work as soon as he got back to his office from the White House briefing room.
“I’m thinking I’m going to get this attaboy, like ‘Here you go, you crushed it.’ And he’s like ‘What the hell was that?’” said Spicer, who said he feared he’d be fired before he even received his White House ID and parking pass.
“If the president says something that you know is untrue, would you do it over again in terms of how you represented it?” Burke also asked Spicer.
“I didn’t say Sean Spicer believes this or the Academy of Sciences corroborates it,” Spicer replied.
“Your tenure as a press secretary is about five seconds if you stand up at the podium, no matter who you speak for, and you go ‘The president believes this, but I gotta be honest with you, it’s not true’… That makes Scaramucci look like a long-timer,” Spicer said.
Scaramucci is Anthony Scaramucci, whose hiring by Trump as communications director in July 2017 triggered Spicer’s resignation. Scaramucci lasted less than two weeks after giving a profanity-laden critique of White House aides Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon to The New Yorker.
Spicer, 46, said he learned a lot working for a pair of South Florida members of Congress — former Republican U.S. Reps. Mark Foley and Clay Shaw.
Spicer, who worked for Foley in the 1990s, said Foley’s hunger for media coverage “taught me how to be aggressive, how to hunt for press … It was a great way to get an introduction into thinking about earned media, how to get an event going.”
In 2000, Spicer left Foley’s office to work on Shaw’s tough re-election battle against Democrat Elaine Bloom. Shaw ended up winning by 599 votes in a recount that was overshadowed by another Florida recount.
“It turned out we were second in line at every event, because of Bush v. Gore … That was a pretty intense time — talk about an introduction in the school of hard knocks of elections,” Spicer said.
Spicer was asked about Trump’s frequent criticism of the media and concerns it could lead to violence against reporters.
“I think it’s bad to paint any industry with a broad brush,” Spicer said. He said journalists should not be threatened, but he said the problem is broader than that.
“The idea in this country that we’re at a point where people — journalists, government officials, citizens — have to worry about their safety because they’re expressing a point of view is a major problem in our society,” Spicer said.
On the question of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, Spicer said: “I played a senior level on the campaign, I was a senior member of the transition and a senior White House staffer. I’ve never seen any evidence of anything that would lead me to believe that there’s any evidence, whatsoever, of collusion. Zero. Nada.”
He said Russia’s goal in 2016 “really wasn’t to undermine our election. It’s to undermine the confidence that we have in the integrity of our systems, to make us not believe, to not trust.”
“Do you think they’re succeeding?” Burke asked.
“I think they are,” Spicer said. “Look at where we are as a society. We question each other, we start, we stop, we don’t believe the media as much, we’re undermining government institutions … I think to some degree they’re succeeding.”