On Wednesday, at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer joined top Obama media campaign strategists and former senior White House staffer David Axelrod (Senior Advisor 2009-2011) and Robert Gibbs (Press Secretary 2009-2011), for a surprisingly frank and insightful discussion on the rise of Donald Trump and his future press operation.
There was a palpable difference between Spicer’s approach to Wednesday’s talk and how he interacted with writers from Politico, whom he spoke with in mid-December.
Spicer treated his Democratic counterparts with reverence and respect, a noticeable difference from the way he treated those the Trump camp think of as “adversaries” in the press.
The hour-long conversation focused on Spicer’s upcoming role as Press Secretary, and the relationship between the Trump White House and the press corps.
One overarching theme present in Spicer discourse is his hostile approach to the press, an attitude that mirrors Donald Trump’s. The Trump transition and administration will likely use press bias as a central tenet to their strategy when responding to unfavorable coverage.
To kick off the talk, Axelrod asked Spicer about his mentality in the run up to the 2016 campaign and during the crowded GOP primary.
“The party needed to get out of the way of the voters,” Spicer said. According to him, that proved one of the most crucial recommendations contained in the GOP’s 2012 post-mortem report, the Growth & Opportunity Project.
Axelrod deftly noted the same report also recommended appealing to Hispanics, young people and women — a strategy Trump clearly ignored.
Spicer disagreed with Axelrod’s assessment, claiming that Trump spent much more time in minority communities when compared to recent GOP candidates. Yet it was clear throughout the election cycle that Trump did not maximize GOP support among minorities or women.
Spicer did concede the GOP must do more to appeal and reach out to those voters.
Investing in data and a digital operation was the other recommendation from the report; Spicer sees both as key to Trump’s success. “The investment we made in data was unequivocally worth it. We knew exactly where the undecideds were and what was going to move them, and we knew how to go after them,” he noted.
The most telling moment of the event came as the conversation moved to fake news.
Spicer was asked about the variety of false tweets and bogus statements from the president and his surrogates. His response was simply: “Our job is to march forward, implement the agenda and get it out.” He did not address the accuracy of arguments or the importance of presidential scrutiny and truth-telling.
Spicer said he wholeheartedly believed that Trump strongly believes everything he tweets is true, particularly when asked about his claim that millions of people voted illegally. Axelrod pointedly replied: “You're telling me he believed that when he said it, but that doesn't make it true."
More telling: Trump relies on Twitter — and Spicer, his top press advisor, has no control over what he tweets as president.