The Memo: Five takeaways from Spicer’s briefing

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, returned to the White House briefing room for the first time in two weeks on Tuesday.

Spicer’s appearance came just hours after it emerged that Mike Dubke had resigned as White House communications director — a move that sparked renewed speculation about Spicer’s own future as the administration's most visible spokesman.

A deeper controversy is also swirling around the administration after The Washington Post broke the news last Friday that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, had reportedly sought to establish a secret communications channel with Russia last December. 


Here are the top takeaways from Spicer's appearance back at the podium:


No firm denial on Kushner-Russia allegation

There was no firm denial by Spicer of the central allegation against Kushner: that he had sought to establish a private line of communication with the Kremlin before Trump took office. 

The press secretary did knock media reports for not being based on named sources. He also noted that senior figures in the administration, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had suggested in general terms that backchannel communications could be useful in international diplomacy.

But Spicer didn't explicitly say that the reports were wrong.

His attempt to cast aspersions on the reporting while not directly contradicting it led to some of the most heated moments of the news conference — especially in Spicer’s exchanges with his first two questioners, Philip Rucker of The Washington Post and Francesca Chambers of the Daily Mail. 

When Rucker asked if Trump approved of Kushner’s reported actions, Spicer insisted, “You’re asking if he approves of an action that is not a confirmed action.”

To a similar line of questioning from Chambers, Spicer said simply, “I’m not going to get into confirming stuff.”

On tone, Spicer was vigorous in backing Kushner. Substantively, he was much less so. That disconnect only underlined that this storm likely won’t blow over anytime soon.


Spicer’s real audience is one person: Trump

Much of Spicer’s performance seemed to be geared toward currying favor with his boss rather than answering reporters’ questions or persuading skeptical voters.

Spicer began the briefing with a lengthy recap of the president’s international travels, which included some grand claims. He called Trump’s speech to Muslim leaders “a historic turning point” and asserted that the president had “rallied the civilized nations of the world” against terrorism.

There were several other nods to Trump’s purported assertiveness, leadership qualities and good judgment. 

Asked whether Trump was happy with his communications team, the press secretary averred that “the best messenger is the president himself,” in part because of how well he grasps “the values of the American people.”

On the question of whether the president is close to selecting a replacement for James Comey as director of the FBI, Spicer gave no definitive answer. But he made sure to laud Trump’s status as “the ultimate decision-maker.”

The overall impression was of a press secretary for whom only one person’s opinion mattered.


The war on media continues

Spicer’s at-times combative relationship with reporters has become one of his defining characteristics, in part because it fuels Melissa McCarthy’s famed impersonation of him on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

There was to be no detente during the first briefing since Trump’s foreign trip.

In addition to Spicer’s pushback on the sourcing of the stories about Kushner, he hit out again at the media in the course of defending the performance of the White House communications team.

Spicer insisted that Trump was “very pleased” with his team but that he got “frustrated” by the propagation of stories that are “patently wrong” or “absolutely false.”

A verbal tussle played out involving the press secretary, CNN's Jim Acosta and The New York Times's Peter Baker.

Asked by Acosta to provide an example of fake news, Spicer cited a tweet from a BBC reporter that had incorrectly suggested Trump had not listened to the translation of a speech by the prime minister of Italy during his foreign trip.

The White House pushed back, noting that Trump was being fed a translation through a single earpiece that was not visible in some photographs.

Baker insisted Spicer was blowing one tweet out of proportion at the expense of “the vast majority of the coverage.”

There was no clear victor during that exchange. But it underlined the tension that bubbles up so often between the media and the White House communications team.


Pushback — of a kind — on Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised eyebrows over the weekend with comments implying that the traditional transatlantic alliance was loosening.

“The times when we could fully count on others are over to a certain extent. I have experienced this in the last few days," Merkel said, in what was seen as a clear jab at Trump following the NATO and Group of Seven meetings both leaders attended.

“We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” she added, while allowing that this should take place “in friendship with the United States” and other nations.

Spicer insisted that Trump “views not just Germany but the rest of Europe as an important American ally.”

But Spicer also said that Trump viewed his relationship with Merkel as “fairly unbelievable” — a choice of words that drew some mocking attention on social media.

The body language between the two has appeared frosty on a number of occasions, from a March news conference at the White House to the most recent round of meetings. 

In March, there were suggestions that Trump had refused to accede to Merkel’s verbal request for a handshake in the Oval Office, though Spicer later said the president had not heard the chancellor.


Trump’s stance on global warming: unclear

When Spicer was asked whether Trump believes human activity contributes to global warming, the press secretary responded, “Honestly, I haven’t asked him.”

The issue is a particularly germane one now, amid reports that Trump could be considering withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, originally agreed to in 2015 to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Spicer’s comment drew immediate condemnation from environmental groups.

“If it’s true that President Trump still does not accept the scientific consensus that man is driving dangerous climate change by burning fossil fuels, he would continue to be the only head of state in the entire world to hold that position,” the Sierra Club asserted in an email to reporters.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.