The hardest job in Washington is only getting harder.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer is once again expected to take on the additional role of communications director with the resignation of Michael Dubke, meaning he’ll juggle the two jobs most central to pushing the White House’s message — and most scrutinized by a president frustrated by a gush of negative media reports.
Trump is also now back from abroad and back on Twitter, making any coherent messaging strategy nearly impossible. The president has already appeared to complicate Senate efforts by calling for more health care spending, and he tore up his aides’ careful talking points on Jared Kushner’s Russia scandals by retweeting a Fox News article about the controversy. And that was just during his first two full days back in Washington.
The strain on the man who has to explain it all showed during a combative briefing on Tuesday, and during the foreign trip in which Spicer was largely sidelined.
The fact that Spicer did the briefing at all was a bit of a surprise, given that Trump had already discussed pulling back on Spicer’s public role once the team was back in Washington. White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who enjoys a good rapport with the press corps, is expected to command more of the daily briefings going forward.
Spicer did the briefing on Tuesday “to give the middle finger to you guys,” a Republican close to the White House said. "Spicer wanted to do it, and Trump was good with it. I’m not sure how often he’ll do it from now on, but today was to give the middle finger to you guys."
"They have realized the communications value of those briefings is not good for them,” the person added.
Trump, who has frequently critiqued his press secretary, recently told Spicer that his answers to questions were too long and that he needed to be more succinct in responding to the media, two people familiar with the conversation said.
After the briefings, Trump has taken to occasionally dissecting Spicer’s words on specific questions, pointing out mistakes and giving him tips on how to respond in the future, the people added.
Tuesday’s briefing was packed with bold adjectives, dodges and media attacks. Spicer described Trump’s foreign trip in a long opening statement as “incredible,” “historic,” and “unprecedented.” Trump’s relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel is “fairly unbelievable,” he said at one point.
He derided the press as “fake news,” excoriated the use of anonymous sources, and defended the president’s dissemination of a story that relied on a single, unidentified source. At one point, he scolded Peter Baker, the New York Times chief White House correspondent, for shaking his head. And, when he abruptly ended the briefing, he left the stage to angry shouts and continued questions from the assembled press.
Spicer faced special difficulty answering questions about Kushner’s alleged effort to establish back-channel communications with Russian officials during the transition, and about Trump’s reaction.
"What your question assumes is a lot of facts that are not substantiated by anything but anonymous sources that are so far being leaked out," he said at one point. "You’re asking if he approves of an action that is not a confirmed action.”
He refused to deny the reports about Kushner’s actions, but also argued that backchannels are “acceptable.” But he declined to say if he thought they were acceptable, and said he was only quoting other administration officials.
The frustration he showed at the lectern Tuesday is not new. On the recent trip abroad, he repeatedly showed the strain of the job.
At one point, he got drinks with a group of other staffers and reporters in Jerusalem, where he was adamant that the conversation steer clear of work.
"The most we’ve seen of Sean [Spicer] was at a rooftop bar in Jerusalem,” said one U.S. journalist on the trip. “But he refused to take work-related questions, and said if you asked him a work-related question, then you had to take a shot.”
The comment was made in jest, according to people present, and no shots were taken.
No POLITICO employees were present at the gathering, which was off the record. Spicer declined to comment.
Spicer on Tuesday argued that Trump is “very pleased” with the work of his staff, pushing back against rumors about further changes beyond Dubke’s departure.
During the briefing, Spicer acknowledged what the president plainly believes.
“Ultimate the best messenger is the president himself,” Spicer said. “He’s always proven that.”
Eliana Johnson and Annie Karni contributed to this report.