Spicer keeps the heat on mainstream media

White House press secretary Sean Spicer was a free trade advocate, but now has to explain Mr Trump's disdain for the TPP.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was a free trade advocate, but now has to explain Mr Trump's disdain for the TPP.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But Trump spokesman has his hands full as go-between for unpredictable boss and press

At his first official press conference as the new White House press secretary, Mr Sean Spicer broke with a longstanding tradition: He took his first question, not from the Associated Press, but The New York Post.

That raised the eyebrows of journalists and viewers alike: The AP is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning American wire service with bureaus round the world; the Post is a tabloid with covers this month that featured Kim Kardashian's cleavage with the headline Big Bust and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman in a barely-there bikini under the headline Perfect 10s.

Two days earlier, Mr Spicer had held a press briefing just to angrily accuse the media of engaging "in deliberately false reporting" of the inauguration of his boss, President Donald Trump. "Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimise the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall," he said, before leaving abruptly without taking questions.

Mr Spicer, seeming more seasoned than his 45 years, was far more cordial at the follow-up press conference. But observers interpreted his decision to give the Post the first question as putting the mainstream media on notice that he and Mr Trump had no intention of backing down from confrontations with the press they had had on the campaign trail just because they now occupied the hallowed halls of the White House.

Mr Spicer next called on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Before allowing questions from AP and networks such as CNN, he took queries from Fox cable channels owned, like the Post, by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Following the lengthy conference, The New York Times ran a report that traced what it called "Spicer's war with the media" to his days as a student government senator at Connecticut College in 1993. In one report, the student newspaper identified him as Sean "Sphincter" after he proposed an amendment to anti-smoking regulations. The paper quickly apologised for what it said was an unintentional error, but Mr Spicer called it a "malicious and intentional attack" that he found to be "sad". The Times noted that may have even been the origin of the meme "Sad!", now often used by Mr Trump as an exclamation point in his tweets.

Reuters also pointed to evidence of Mr Spicer's love-hate relationship with the press. It noted that he recently told Politico: "We understand and respect the role that the press plays in a democracy. It is healthy, it's important. But it's a two-way street." He then turned around and bashed the news outlet for what he said was exclusively negative coverage.

Born in Barrington in the deep blue Democratic state of Rhode Island in 1971, Mr Spicer told the Fox News affiliate there after his appointment that he became passionate about politics while attending the high-priced Catholic Benedictine Portsmouth Abbey School. While he was there, he played soccer, wrestled and sailed, and started volunteering for local races. After graduating in 1989, he continued to do so while at Connecticut College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in government.

Upon graduating, Mr Spicer went straight to Washington, DC, interning for various Republican congressmen. In one campaign post for Senator Robert Dole, he was required to go to Washington's Union Station to pick up the day's New York newspapers, then prepare a summary of important news with clippings. On a lighter note, he was not averse to putting on a bunny suit twice for the White House Easter Egg Roll.

In 1999, Mr Spicer joined the US Navy Reserve as a public affairs officer, where he still holds a commander's rank. From there, he worked his way up from a spokesman for Republican offices at the House of Representatives to communications director at the Republican National Committee in 2011. The following year, he attended the Naval War College in Newport and earned a Master of Science in National Security and Strategic Studies.

Later that year, he helped the Republican committee tap into social media - where it lagged behind then President Barack Obama and the Democrats - to quintuple its number of Facebook friends, grow its Twitter followers by more than 700 per cent and increase views of the party's YouTube videos. His team received 18 Pollie Awards from the American Association of Political Consultants for its efforts during the 2012 election cycle.

Mr Spicer is married to a television producer, Ms Rebecca Miller, and the couple have two children.

Despite his impressive accomplishments, Mr Spicer is expected to have his hands full, not just as the go-between for the unpredictable Mr Trump and the media, but also to put aside his own views for those of his boss.

In fact, Mr Spicer was an advocate - not of putting America first - but of free trade when he worked with the George W. Bush administration from 2006 to 2008. Now he has to explain why Mr Trump shot down the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and is also taking aim at North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mr Spicer acknowledged the contradiction in an interview with the Washington Post, reasoning that people in many professions often have to work with people they don't agree with. "There are doctors who help people who have done bad things, there are lawyers who defend bad people," he said. "I don't think it's unique to my profession."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Spicer keeps the heat on mainstream media'. Print Edition | Subscribe