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White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer: ‘Our Intention Is Never to Lie to You’

Variety logo Variety 1/23/2017 Ted Johnson
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White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer faced the press corps for his first official briefing on Monday less combative and less irate, but still left little doubt that going forward, the Trump administration will still target the news media for criticism.

Spicer’s name became a Twitter meme following his appearance on Saturday in the White House briefing room to challenge press accounts of President Donald Trump’s inaugural crowd size. On Monday, he started the briefing by trying to set a new tone with a joke.

“I was going to start with a little recap of the inauguration, but I think we have covered that pretty well,” Spicer said.

During Saturday’s press statement, Spicer, in an angry tone, rattled off a set of claims to challenge some media accounts of just how many people attended the inaugural. In a speech to the CIA earlier in the day, Trump himself seemed perturbed at media photos show empty spaces along the National Mall. But Spicer’s attack on inaugural reporting was met by D.C. media pushing back, debunking what he said. The New York Times called Spicer’s claims “false,” and journalists on CNN labelled them as lies. On Twitter, #spicerfacts began to trend. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr even quipped about the term as he chatted with reporters on Sunday.

Spicer tried a bit of a restart.

“I believe that we have to be honest with the American people, but I believe that we can disagree on the facts,” Spicer said on Monday, as he smiled at times and, unlike Saturday, took questions.

Still, as he faced the White House press corps, the question was one of credibility — in other words, if Spicer is telling inaccurate information about such a petty thing as crowd counts, what happens when the administration gets to more serious issues?

“I believe that we have to be honest with the American people,” Spicer said, adding that “our intention is never to lie to you.”

He spoke of wanting to have a “healthy relationship.” He seemed to acknowledge that some of his figures of Metro ridership on Saturday were incorrect, when he said that there “are times when we act in haste.”

But despite his friendlier tone, Spicer didn’t back away from some of what he said on Saturday. He still insisted that the inaugural crowd size was “the most watched” — albeit it he was not quite as emphatic as he was on Saturday, when he declared that it was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” That conflicts with both the Nielsen viewership (31 million) and the crowd size (markedly different from 2009). On Monday, Spicer also pointed out that online streaming should be added to the mix. (Here is where audience measurement gets muddled: He cited 16.9 million live streams on CNN — but that was 16.9 million livestream “starts.” It peaked at 2.3 million concurrent streams during the speech).

Spicer did address, deftly at many times, a wide range of more important issues from a a variety of reporters. He signaled changes in the nature of the daily briefing, with plans to allow participation from reporters outside of Washington via Skype. And he bucked tradition in calling on the New York Post first and, at least initially, avoiding major outlets in the front row like CNN and ABC News.

He still talked about how the Trump administration’s relationship with the press would be a “two-way street,” meaning that the White House won’t shy away from criticizing the way that it is covered. If the media can cover the new president critically, so can his team air their beefs.

That is did. He once again tore into a pool reporter, Zeke Miller, for claiming on Friday that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. As it turned out, the reporter didn’t see the bust because people were standing in front of it, and he later apologized. Spicer, though, said, “Where was that apology?” The reporter, however, did apologize on Friday, and Spicer even tweeted his acceptance of it.

Later, Jim Acosta of CNN asked just why the new administration saw fit to make a statement to the press about inaugural crowd size, on a Saturday, in the first place. “Why worry about a couple of tweets about crowd sizes?” he asked.

Spicer then got more animated, going into a lengthy explanation of how Trump has from the start faced a skeptical media that doubted he could be successful, but that now “the default narrative is negative.” He called the negative coverage “demoralizing.”

“When we’re right, say we’re right. When we’re wrong, say we’re wrong. But it’s not always wrong and negative,” he said.

Past press secretaries and past presidents have had the same complaints. What’s unusual is that this time, it’s on day one.

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