ROME – President Donald Trump’s entourage at the Vatican on Wednesday included his wife, his daughter, and an array of staffers—but not White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a devout Catholic who told reporters earlier this year that he gave up alcohol for Lent.
Both sides, according to a White House official, agreed to limit the number of staffers who attended. Two other senior communications aides from the White House were included: Hope Hicks, who like Melania and Ivanka Trump wore a black veil over her hair, and Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media and a longtime Trump loyalist.
Also in attendance were State Department aide Brian Hook, security head Keith Schiller, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Hicks, a loyal aide who has been at Trump’s side since before he announced his candidacy, was introduced to Pope Francis by the president as someone who has worked for him a long time.
Other members of the traveling Trump team who are not practicing Catholics said they gave up their spots to accommodate Catholic White House aides. But Spicer – a regular churchgoer who was mocked last year for appearing on CNN with ashes on his forehead in honor of Ash Wednesday – was notably absent.
That was in line with a lower-key role the press secretary has been playing during the president’s nine-day, five-country tour. Trump is considering scaling back Spicer’s public role behind the podium in the White House briefing room, POLITICO reported last week, as he weighs a broader shakeup of his communications team.
Spicer, who has loyally defended Trump even when it has meant damaging his own credibility with the press, is expected to stay in a senior administration role, albeit one that is more behind the scenes. He is not expected to continue the daily televised White House press briefing that has made him a household name and a viral sensation as a character on "Saturday Night Live" after Trump returns to Washington.
Spicer declined to comment about his role or the audience with the Pope.
Before Trump departed, White House aides said he expressed relief that the trip would provide a reprieve from the daily press briefing, which he believes has become more of a distraction than a tool to drive the White House’s message of the day.
Since day one of the trip in Riyadh, Spicer has not conducted a single on-the-record briefing with the traveling press. Instead, he has been trying to give reporters more access to senior administration officials to talk about the president’s objectives on the trip and to answer questions.
Spicer helped organize three briefings with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who seemed to warm up to the exercise after receiving criticism for not traveling with his own State Department press corps. “We have two press corps seats on the plane, and I do meet with whoever’s along,” he explained to reporters flying on Air Force One between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, about how he handles State Department travel. “I invite them back to my little office and we chat with the two people that are with me.”
Spicer has also organized multiple background briefings with senior administration officials involved in planning the trip, and overall appeared in good spirits during a busy, sleepless slog of a junket.
In a television interview during the transition, Spicer talked about his deep Catholic faith. “I’m going to look to God every day to give me the strength to do what’s right,” he said. “That’s all you can ask for is to get up and say, “Can I do this thing?” Help guide me and ask Him for strength.”