In an interview this week with the Daily Caller, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that he had decided to give up alcohol for Lent, cutting out the glass of wine he enjoys most nights after sparring with the media and browbeating reporters for their “fake news” stories during each of his daily press briefings. Spicer, unfortunately may have picked the wrong week to give up drinking. Despite some improvements in their working relationship, The New York Times reports that Donald Trump remains not entirely pleased with the public face of his White House. And, as he demonstrated during his 77-minute marathon press conference last month and his well-received, hour-long address to Congress Tuesday night, Trump appears perfectly happy to do the work of defending his presidency himself, if he has to. In fact, he seems to prefer it.
Trump’s generalized antipathy toward Spicer is already well known. Spicer was, after all, an old R.N.C. hand who was brought on board by Reince Priebus, making him doubly disliked in a White House that prizes longtime loyalty and distrusts Washington insiders. Many of the president’s grievances with Spicer are more superficial: he was reportedly unimpressed with the press secretary’s early sartorial efforts and was enraged that a woman, Melissa McCarthy, parodied him on Saturday Night Live. But he also faults Spicer for more fundamental missteps. “In terms of messaging, I would give myself a C or a C-plus,” Trump told Fox & Friends earlier this week, suggesting that his poor approval ratings were the result of his communications strategy, rather than his policies. (Spicer had, until two weeks ago, been doing double duty as both press secretary and communications director.)
Sources tell the Times that Trump’s recent efforts to take control over his messaging, both with his freewheeling presser last month and his congressional address this week, are part of a deliberate move by Trump to reassert himself as his own spokesperson—a role he relished during the campaign and believes he can do better than anyone else. Several Trump allies told the Times that the president damned Spicer with faint praise when he called him a “fine human being” during his recent Fox News interview—a dismissive phrase for the normally loquacious Trump. When he was asked by Fox about reports that Spicer had tried to crack down on leaks within the White House press office by conducting a mass search of his employees’ phones, Trump responded that he “would have done it differently.”
In private, Trump reportedly seethes about his constant bad press and the inability of his staff to handle both the journalists attacking him from the outside and the anonymous leakers he accuses of sabotaging his administration from within. Fellow Manhattan businessman and longtime friend John Catsimatidis told the Times that Trump needed to give his press office new direction, and that he should be allowed to speak for himself. “Everybody hates his tweets, but at least people know what he’s really thinking,” he said.
To those who know Trump, his desire to cut out the middleman is in keeping with his longtime approach to business. As a chief executive, Trump always focused on micromanaging the details of messaging and stagecraft, leaving the less glitzy operational and financial details to subordinates to work out. Trump is, after all, a showman and promoter at heart. In the 1980s, he regularly pretended to be his own public-relations spokesperson, adopting pseudonyms so that he could plant positive news stories about himself in the local New York tabloids. He has employed a similar management style in the White House, running the U.S. government like a small family business. Instead of delegating authority to departmental and agency heads, which have thousands of employees of their own, Trump has consolidated his administrative hierarchy, elevating a handful of trusted insiders to powerful new roles. His White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and his deputy, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, are effectively in control of much of the administration’s national security. Jared Kushner, according to recent reports from disgruntled diplomats, has essentially taken over as a shadow secretary of state. Why shouldn’t Trump, who will never find a press secretary he likes better than himself, not serve as his own spokesperson, too?