April 7, 2020

Explaining a Parallel Universe

By Stephen Tuttle | May 27, 2017

Take a moment, please, and think a kind thought for the tortured souls of Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and any other spokesperson for President Donald Trump. It isn't their fault.

Theirs has been a bumpy road right from the beginning. Immediately after election day they had to explain Trump's claims that millions of illegal votes were cast in California and that illegal voters had been brought into New Hampshire by the busload.

That neither of those claims was true made his spokespersons’ jobs especially difficult. Spicer was reduced to saying, “That's what he believes.” There was nothing else Spicer could say. 

Then there was the nonsense surrounding the size of the inauguration crowd, Washington D.C. Metro ridership, and the Woman's March. Then he fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Then he fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Then he fired a federal prosecutor investigating Russia's ties to the Trump campaign. Then he claimed former President Barack Obama wiretapped his phones. Then he claimed reports of Russia's meddling in the election were “fake news,” fired FBI Director James Comey, and leaked classified information to Russian diplomats. 

Somebody, usually Spicer or Conway, had to explain — or at least defend — all of it. Sometimes the explanations were as daffy as a Trump pronouncement. 

Conway, who has a skill set unmatched when it comes to not answering questions, responded to one on numerical reports of crowd sizes and D.C. Metro passengers by saying, “I want to talk about things that are quantifiable, not a bunch of Metro riders and crowd sizes.” Another time she told a baffled press corps, “You want real; I want the truth.” 

Spokespeople sell and defend positions and ideas cobbled together by others. Ideally, the the message is coherent and consistent. Trump has been neither, making the press secretary's job very nearly impossible.

Take, for example, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia's interference in the presidential election. 

Whether you agree or not, Trump had every right to make that decision. The FBI Director is a presidential appointee. To keep him or her above the political fray of quadrennial presidential elections, an FBI director’s term is limited to a 10-years term. Only one previous FBI director was fired.

None of that matters. Trump was within his rights for whatever reason. All his team had to say was that he had lost confidence in Comey and felt the bureau needed new leadership. Nothing more.

Instead, they concocted a story.

Trump and crew’s company line had Comey being axed based on a critical memo written by Assistant Attorney General Ron Rosenstein, who had then been on the job all of two weeks. It claimed Comey had been unfair to Hillary Clinton during the email and private server investigations.

That the cover wasn't believable didn't matter. Spicer, Sanders, and Conway all parroted the story. Sanders went so far as to claim Comey had committed “atrocities” during the investigation. Vice President Mike Pence, seemingly befuddled but always dutiful to his mercurial boss, repeated the story seven different times. 

Then Trump gave an interview to Lester Holt of NBC News, effectively cutting off the legs, arms, and heads of his spokespeople and throwing the body parts under the bus. 

It was the “Russia thing” Trump said, and he was going to fire Comey regardless of the Rosenstein memo. Then Rosenstein threatened to quit if his memo kept being used as the reason for Comey's firing. Rosenstein added that he knew Comey was going to be fired before he wrote it. Then Trump called Comey a “nut job” while talking to Russian diplomats and said his firing would relieve pressure from the Russia investigations.

In the middle of that, Comey said Trump tried to convince him to stop investigating Michael Flynn.

Oh, dear. Imagine you're the spokesperson about to step to the microphone.

All you have to do is answer a few simple questions: why you lied the day before when you said Comey was fired because of the Rosenstein memo. Why Rosenstein wrote the memo if he already knew Comey was going to be fired. Why Trump's comment to Holt isn't an admission of obstruction of justice. Why Trump's comments to the Russians isn't an admission of obstruction of justice. And why Trump's request to Comey isn't a direct obstruction of justice. Perhaps, too, why Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who told Congress he would recuse himself from any Russia-related investigations, wrote a supporting cover letter to Rosenstein's memo. 

Go ahead, explain all that to an eagerly awaiting press corps. Do it with a straight face, and say a little prayer your boss doesn't change his story. Again.

To be sure, the spokespeople — Trump-true-believers all — work those jobs willingly. They just didn't know they were going to have to explain and defend a parallel universe.




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