Sean Spicer joined me this morning. The incoming White House Director of Communications and Press Secretary and I covered a lot of ground on the new president’s plans for communicating his priorities and plans:
HH: My New Year’s present to you, my first interview with now-Press Secretary and White House Communications Director-Designate, Sean Spicer. He’s been on the show, of course, scores of times. He’s a good friend, and he’s going to be a great press secretary. Sean Spicer, congratulations. This is very, very good news for the American media, and I think, for President-Elect Trump that you agreed to do this. I’m not so sure it’s good for the Spicer sleep schedule. You’ve already been working pretty hard for the last two years. Now, you have to up the pace a little bit.
SS: You do, but you know, it’s worth it. And I’m really excited and honored, and frankly humbled by this. This is somebody who’s been doing this for 25 years to have, this is the pinnacle, right? This is what, as a communicator, you dream of. And the idea that President-Elect Trump has honored me by this opportunity is truly amazing. And I pinched myself for the last five days every day going holy smokes. So it is honestly the single greatest honor I’ve had in my life, and I hope I live up to it.
HH: And you know, Sean, you’re going to be very good at this. You’re like Tony Snow. It’s the only job that people at the top of their profession will leave for. Tony Snow did, Jay Carney did, Robert Gibbs did. People leave great gigs, and Tony used to do my show when he was press secretary. I’m curious if you will be doing radio as press secretary?
SS: Oh, 100%.
SS: And your show is at the top of that list. And look, and I don’t just say that because I’m on your show. I’m saying it because I think that talk radio has been an important part of the conservative base for a long time. And one of the things that’s important, and one of the things that the mainstream media missed is when talk radio really started to rise in the early 90s, it gave ideas and outlets, and frankly people a place to go that they could have an adult conversation, an adult debate, about substantive issues. And I think that we recognize that, and we will continue to utilize it as a very powerful medium.
HH: Now I spent six hours in this forum with then-candidate, now-President-Elect Trump. And he’s very good on the radio. He’s the best interview in America, and I’ve said that for the last two years. Do you expect him to do radio? George W. Bush wouldn’t do radio. He would do television. He would never do radio as president. President Obama would only do left wing radio. I’m hoping President-Elect Trump does radio, left, right, center, and actually hostile media like Vox and Talking Points Memo, because he’s very good at it.
SS: He is, and he understands the media writ large, general, and communications probably better than anyone in modern American history, and potentially going back through. He really has a strategic understanding of how to drive a message and where the American people are at. So I don’t, I think absolutely, we’ve tried to sort of get him, his focus has been on filling a cabinet and setting up his legislative priorities and agenda. But absolutely, as we get closer to and after inauguration, I see him fully utilizing radio as a great way to make sure that he’s continuing to communicate directly to the American people.
HH: Do you think he will seek out and sit down with, there are some critics out there like my colleague, Joy Reid, at MSNBC. Joy’s a great professional friend. We don’t agree on anything. She’d be a very tough interview. But Donald Trump has never seemed to be afraid of tough interviews. Do you see him sitting down with people who are considered left of center and audiences which are not normally favorable to conservatives to engage?
SS: Well, that would be everyone in the media except conservative media.
SS: (laughing) I mean, so yes, I mean, look. What we owe the press conference, I would qualify that as engagement with left wing media. And that’s going to come in January as he’s already talked about. So absolutely, look, I don’t know that Joy Reid in particular, but as you’ve seen through the people that he’s brought in, I mean, you saw just take a look at the tech media that he had a couple of weeks back. Every single person in that room save his staff had been huge advocates of Hillary Clinton. But he brought them in because he understood that they have a key aspect of job creation and economic growth in terms of those companies in particular. He put all of the election behind him and said I want to do great things for this country, and I want to put people back to work. I want to work on increasing American workers’ take home pay, and you guys can help do that. And if you want to be part of that conversation, I don’t really care where you were during the election. He has shown through the people that he is talking to for potential picks in his administration the same kind of philosophy. If you want to help make this country better, if you want to help implement a Trump agenda and put the American worker first, then I welcome you to that. And that’s, I think, the same approach with media, which is look, I get it, we’re not going to win a battle whether the New York Times is going to ever give us a fair shake or not. But we recognize that there’s, you know, a few thousand readers or so left that still look at the New York Times, and so it’s worth, probably, talking to them. I think, and so we’re going to utilize various outlets to continue the conversation. As you point out, he’s not afraid of anybody. He can sit down and go toe to toe with world leaders, top business folks. That’s what’s made him successful is his sort of no fear, get it done attitude.
HH: You know what the biggest unreported story is, a lot of my colleagues are obsessing over the conflicts issues, which is really Don McGahn’s problem. He’s got to come up with the MOU, and they will figure it out eventually and it will work. I just don’t care about that story. But that Robert Gates would come up and that the President-Elect would ask him what do you think about SecState. Now I’m a big Mitt Romney fan, right? And so I was hoping it was Mitt Romney. But I can understand a dialectic where the President-Elect says to Gates what do you think? He says have you thought about Tillerson, and the President-Elect says no, I haven’t, tell me about him. That’s actually amazing, Sean Spicer, that that kind of dynamic is underway.
SS: Right. But again, this gets back to this idea that he wants ideas, opinions, people who have been successful or who have ideas to implement that’ll bring success. And he’s thinking outside the box. I mean, you look at, there was an op-ed that Rudy Giuliani penned yesterday about the type of cabinet that he’s had. You talk about a guy like Rex Tillerson, right? I don’t know what the guy makes at Exxon Mobil, but it’s one of the top companies in the world. He’s making money hand over fist. And yet, he want to serve this country and make it better, so he’s willing to step away from all of that in the same way that the President-Elect has stepped away from his business, or is stepping away from his business, because they care about the country, and that they recognize that they have been given opportunities through this amazing country that we live in, and they want to give back. And you look over and over again at the people that the President-Elect has chosen for his cabinet, and each one of them has defined success in one way or another, whether it’s you know, politically or you know, in the military or in business. And they’ve given up what they could potentially do or earn for the good of this country and they want to embrace the agenda that Donald Trump and the movement that he is championing. And I think that’s a pretty awesome, it’s not filled with a bunch of current elected officeholders who are sort of trying to figure out how to take care of people who were supportive during the campaign. These are all people that in their respective areas are really committed to real, fundamental change.
HH: Oh, I think Puzder at Labor, and Scott Pruitt at EPA, these are terrific choices. I’m looking forward to the SCOTUS choice. Has the President-Elect interviewed any would-be SCOTUS nominees, yet, Sean Spicer?
SS: No, no. He has had some discussions with staff and different outside groups and solicited some input, but to the best of my knowledge, there have been no one interviewed.
HH: Back to the conflicts question, because I hear it talked about all the time. I think there will be a memorandum of understanding about how to do this just like the Clinton Foundation had with President Obama during the transition. Was the press conference that was promised postponed because Don McGahn just hasn’t come up with the plan, yet? Is that, because you can’t answer questions until your lawyer tells you want to do.
SS: That’s part of it, yeah, and as the President-Elect noted last night, it’s a fairly simple process. But I think that because there’s a lot of lawyers involved, and there’s a lot of entities, I mean, he’s, you know, and this isn’t a guy who just sort of made money through hedge funds. He owns some of the most iconic properties in the world. It’s a pretty simple process, but there’s other family members involved, and so, and I think they wanted to make sure that all the I’s are dotted and all the T’s are laid out, and that when he stood there for this press conference, knowing that not only that but a lot of other issues would come up, that we could make it very clear how the relationship was going to work with the children, etc. So it’s a simple process, but I think there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, if you will, because of the scope of this. And so he just wanted to make sure we got it right. And frankly, the bigger part was this, Hugh. You know, and you look at the pace and the number of people that he has interviewed, met with, talked to or appointed to various, you know, potential positions, it’s well over a hundred now. His pace far exceeds anyone in modern history. And I think what the issue was, was that there were people that had to sit down with him and walk him through like hey, are you okay with the following. And the reality was his focus was on picking a cabinet, meeting with folks, talking about ideas. And so it was sort if, it wasn’t so much the process was difficult as much as getting the time to sit down and walk through it. And that’s why we just decided to make sure he had some time to review some things, and we were going to make it clear in the first part of January we’d have it done.
HH: After the first press conference, which will be a lot devoted to conflicts, I can just hear the questions now…
HH: Do you expect him to keep up a regular and as energetic a series of press conferences as previous presidents? Do you expect him to be more or less engaged than previous presidents with that setting, that formal East Room setting sort of thing?
SS: Yeah, that’s a good question, because I think the thing that you’ve seen with Donald Trump is that he doesn’t, he doesn’t look to the past and say I’ve got to conform to these precedents. He figures out what’s the best way. And so maybe we do, you know, a series of press conferences, but maybe we do some town hall, you know, Facebook town halls. Maybe we go out and solicit input from Twitter. I don’t, I mean, the answer is we’re looking at a lot of things. But there’s no question that you see through the platforms that exist right now, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, he’s closing in like 45 million people that he can have a conversation with, that there are new and modern tools that exist that while we have to sort of do these press conferences because they’re part of the fabric of our country, if you will, there are also some new opportunities that we can be utilizing to bring more people into the process and have a conservation with the American people and not just limit it through the filter of the mainstream media.
HH: But Sean, you know by dis-intermediating the media, that’s a big word, it’s going to confuse the Steelers fans, but by doing it, you’re going to upset them. That’s how they make their money, right? If they don’t, if the President can go directly to the people repeatedly, they are out of, they’re out of gas in a certain respect, aren’t they?
SS: Yeah, but that’s the point, is that I’ve said this before, Hugh. Business as usual is over. And I think what I mean by that is that you know, the President-Elect looks at this and says what’s best for the country? How do we put America and Americans first and stop trying to figure out how we cater to you know, pundits and the establishment class, big donors. He is putting Americans first and foremost. And when he talks about Americans first, he means I don’t care what a bunch of elites tell me or people at a dinner party. He wants to know what American workers care about, what American families care about, what’s going to help American businesses grow. And so yes, if we have to maintain some traditions, we’ll maintain them. And I think, but the point that we’re doing with everything, whether it’s the people or the processes, if we’re looking at them and saying can we do these things better, and bring more Americans into them, respect the American taxpayer more, and yield a better result, but that’s how he, that’s sort of, when we talk about the businesslike approach to the presidency, it’s not, it’s more of a philosophy which says can we do it smarter and better so that we respect the American taxpayer and we give them a better product, right? And so I think that’s where sometimes the liberal media gets this wrong. It’s not saying we’re going to treat it like a business, quote unquote. It’s making sure that there’s a mentality that says can we make sure we get the American people a better product for their money so that they’re enjoying their lives better, they have more opportunity, we’re growing jobs, wages have a better thing, and you know, that regulations are a fundamental part of them, where we’re looking at them and saying what can we ensure we do so that we’re not hampering businesses from helping our own people get more in their paycheck.
HH: Sean Spicer, businesses also do medium term and long term planning. I’m wondering if he has planned his first foreign trip and whether or not it will be the Israel. Do you know?
SS: I don’t. I know that we are having a series of meetings about you know, the first 100 days off and on, and that is an element of it. As far as the legislative agenda, the executive orders, all of those things are coming into play as far as where, you know, his first travel, who’s going to come here first, all of those elements are being looked at right now.
HH: As soon as, I have a new book coming out in three weeks, The Fourth Way…
SS: I heard.
HH: And what I hope the Republicans do. I will send it to you, because I hope the first 100 days is going to be a blockbuster, because I think you get one window, the first nine months of an administration. Is that how you’re viewing it and the President-Elect is viewing it, nine months to move the country fundamentally in a different direction?
SS: Well, I think the first nine hours are going to be pretty exciting. I mean, when you, I’ve sat in a couple of these meetings, and he’s not going to wait. And you look at whether it’s Kerry or Sprint yesterday, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, the stuff that he’s done, he’s, there’s going to be a dramatic and seismic shift on how he, his desire to get things done and bring real change. And it’s going to be day one, week one, first month, first 100 days, but he’s not going to stop. And that’s the thing, is that I’ve seen him interact with individuals about ideas. And there’s some of them that are going to take more time because of the bureaucracy that’s involved, or because of, just frankly, the planning and lead time that some of these need. But he is going to hold people accountable to bringing change about. And sometimes, some of that’s going to happen real quickly, some of it’s going to have a hybrid effect where it’s like there are certain things you can do right away and certain things that happen legislatively. But I think that he’s not thinking you know, just about hey, how do I get these first three months, these first 100 days, done. He’s thinking how do I, what’s an eight year roadmap.
HH: And does, Israel is on the front page right now, so I want to ask specifically about that. Do you anticipate an early trip by the President to Israel?
SS: I don’t want to get ahead of anything at this point, but I will tell you that the relationship with Israel both in terms of what the President-Elect has said, and what you saw Prime Minister Netanyahu say yesterday in terms of very looking forward to working with this next administration, really should highlight to anybody who is concerned about Israel or who loves Israel, that this administration is going to put Israel in its rightful place as a true, true friend of the United States, and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.
HH: Sean Spicer, I know that President Obama called President-Elect Trump yesterday, and that you know, they’ve talked and they continue to talk. But nevertheless, UN Resolution 2334 is unprecedented for a radical move during a transition. It just doesn’t happen that lame duck presidents in a transition do something this radical. When President-Elect Trump tweeted about that being a rough transition, was he talking about the substance of 2334 or the personal dynamics, because I think the personal dynamics look to me from the outside to be very good.
SS: They are, and as the President-Elect and the President said yesterday, there is a difference between the logistic side and the policy side, if you were. And I think that as you said, both the regulatory stuff, the executive orders that are on the way out, and look, President Obama has every right. He is still president for the next 22 days to do certain things. But I think that that, you know, is something that I believe, you know, makes it a little bit tougher in terms of the transition on the policy side. so you know, that was one of several things that I think you know, have made a little more of an issue on the policy side. On the transition side, on the logistical side, the staff and the smooth transition of power, President Obama and his team have been very gracious and very helpful with working with the President-Elect and senior members of the team to make sure that the smooth transition is as smooth as possible.
HH: Has President-Elect Trump talked to former President George W. Bush since that first congratulatory call?
SS: That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I don’t know that off the top of my head.
HH: JFK, once he became president, used to call Ike a lot. That’s in David Eisenhower’s memoir of going home to Gettysburg. Do you expect that President-Elect Trump will be calling on his predecessors often?
SS: It’s possible. You’ve seen, there are a lot of folks, as you’ve pointed out, whether it’s Bob Gates that he’s met with, Henry Kissinger, there’s a lot of folks that he is bringing in both who have served in government, but then also a lot of business leaders and a lot of innovators and asking for their ideas and input. And I don’t think it’s limited to just people who have held a particular office. He’s going to bring in people not who’ll reminisce about the past, but figure out how we can change things for the future.
HH: so that relationship with both former presidents is good?
SS: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
HH: I wonder, and Bill Clinton, we’ll leave that aside. Let me ask you about one thing, Sean Spicer, that you are specifically so versed in, and that is what about the NeverTrumpers? Jonah Goldberg has a column up today at National Review. Does a NeverTrump need to be forgiven? You, as the press secretary for the RNC, had to deal with the most, and you played it straight. You were fair with everyone. You and Reince Priebus played a fair game, unlike some of the stories about the DNC. And you know that there are a lot of public intellectuals who were NeverTrumper from the beginning and always. And now, how are you going to deal with them as press secretary? What do you think should happen? And do you expect President-Elect Trump to invite them in to talk about that in order to get past it?
SS: Well, are you talking about folks in the media or just…
HH: Yeah, people like Jonah, Bill Kristol, George Will, people who were NeverTrumpers.
SS: Well, I think one of the things, and frankly, the biggest thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to see for their own eyes what’s going to happen. And I think hopefully at some point they recognize that the President-Elect really meant it, and is going to show it and demonstrate it in the ways that are going to be undeniable. He is going to you know, focus as he’s done. Look at, you know, again, there’s two examples, both how the F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter, and on Air Force One, where he brought the cost down because of the cost and because of the interactions already on Carrier and now Sprint. You’ve got him getting involved with those companies and talking about bringing, in the case of Sprint, 5,000 jobs that were scheduled to be, that are currently overseas, coming back to America and potentially them talking about additional hires in the United States. Those are real accomplishments, and at some point, no matter how much you may personally not like it, the facts become what the facts are. And you have to at least give the President-Elect credit for two things. One is making American workers’ lives better, making them a focus. Two is I think ending business as usual in Washington and putting, making sure that lobbyists and special interests are put first. He’s already shown that with sort of this very, very forward thinking lobbyist that’s not worried about what you did in the past, but it’s saying that if you want to serve this country, that’s great, but you’re not going to serve yourself, and it’ll be a five year ban on you doing anything like that. and what that means is the people who are coming into a Trump administration are focused on serving the American people, on implementing a Trump agenda, and not worrying about serving themselves and enriching themselves. And that, while sounds sort of simple, you ask people in Washington, that is a vastly different approach than has ever happened before. And this idea that these folks who have been quote NeverTrump, at some point, I’m sure there’s going to be a handful that will never overcome it. But at some point, enough of them are going to have to sort of recognize, hey, you know what? I’ve got to give the guy some credit. He got this done. He got that done, and he’s had, you know, this success after this success.
HH: I see that happening, and I think actually this is going to be very pivotal for the conservative movement. And I’m speaking specifically now as a conservative to Sean Spicer, who’s been a friend of conservatives and a conservative. Do you see your job as bringing sort of peace and getting past that between the movement that was somewhat shattered through 2016, getting everybody on board and in the same direction? Because I already see some of the NeverTrumpers saying you’re right. Look at, Jonah was talking about the cabinet, and I think it’s the most conservative cabinet that has ever been stood up in my lifetime.
SS: Right, wait until you see the Court.
HH: So do you, yeah, and the 103 other appointments. But do you see some way to facilitate that sort of reunion of the conservative movement, which I think we need?
SS: Look, I’d love for it to happen. But I don’t think, his focus right now is getting things done. And I know that, so in other words, instead of getting everyone together and trying to convince them and saying hey, this is what, you guys, I really need you on the team, here’s why. I think what he’s going to do is just show them and say hey, at some point, you know, to your point, you were worried about my cabinet. Wow, I’ve got an unbelievably conservative, dynamic, successful cabinet. And then he’s just going to start doing one deed after another that’s going to at some point, you either have to just admit that you’ll never be with him ever, or you have to say you know what, I was wrong, and he has done the things he said he was going to do, and this country is better for it.
HH: Last question, then. That first big test is going to be the Supreme Court nomination. When I talked to Chief of Staff Priebus incoming, he said a little before, a little after the inauguration. Have you got a better timeline, yet?
SS: No. Right now, I think that I would leave it to what he said. We’ve got a lot of focus on filling out four additional spots in the cabinet. And there’s a lot of sub-thoughts. But it is on that front burner. He has talked to a lot of folks. He’s solicited some input. But I think that I wouldn’t expect an announcement until probably, know, he is officially the president of the United States.
HH: Okay, I lied, second to last question. And there are 14 appeals court vacancies, Sean. To me, this is as important as the Supreme Court, because they hear cases the Supreme Court can’t. Is there a list that’s going to happen fast on those 14?
SS: Well, sure. And again, I think you’ve seen already during the campaign he laid out a number of folks from both the Federalist Society and Heritage and other groups that I think met a very, very strict standard that conservatives will be proud of.
HH: That is great news. Sean Spicer, again, congratulations, I look forward to talking to you next from when you’re in the office as press secretary. Congratulations, it’s a great thing for conservatism that you’re behind that podium engaging and fighting the good fight. Thanks for coming on. Come back early and often throughout 2017 and beyond.
SS: Thank you, Hugh, take care.
End of interview.