White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer joined me this morning:
HH: Joined now by the White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. Good morning, Sean.
SS: Hey, good morning, Hugh Hewitt, how are you?
HH: I am terrific. At the beginning, I have to tell everyone you and I are old friends. I’ve known you for a decade. My son worked for you for a couple of years at the RNC, though he does not now. I have a conflict of interest. Sean is my friend. I think he’s doing a terrific job at the White House. There. But I also have to tell him you’ve gone all Red Forman on me a few times from That 70’s Show. You’ve done that a few times on me, on the air and off. And so I’m kind of used to Sean, full Sean Spicer treatment. You got attacked last night by Hillary Clinton. I want to play it for the audience and get your reaction. Here’s what she said.
HRC: April Ryan, a respected journalist with unrivaled integrity was doing her job just this afternoon in the White House Press Room when she was patronized and cut off trying to ask a question.
HH: Sean Spicer, your reaction?
SS: Well, I respectfully disagree. I think April, I, well, part of it, anyway, I agree with Secretary Clinton in the fact that April is a tough reporter. I think if you ask April both on and off camera during the briefings, she comes up here often. We have very spirited back and forth. And I think that’s what makes her a tough reporter. Frankly, I’m sort of astonished. I think if you look at the exchanges I have with Jonathan Karl or Peter Alexander or a number of the other individuals in the press briefing room, Jim Acosta from CNN, we go back and forth all the time, rather heatedly, in fact. I don’t think it takes much of a search to see that we go back and forth on a lot of the things that are thrown around. And April is a tough reporter that knows how to throw it out and take it back. And so to somehow, I think it’s frankly demeaning for some folks to say that she can’t take it. We went back and forth. I disagreed with her angling, her, the angle and the way that she was coming at the question. But that’s what we do. We go back and forth. And I don’t treat one person different than the next. I go at her the same way I would go at Peter Alexander or Jonathan Karl or you know, Glenn Thrush from the New York Times.
HH: Oh, I hope you treat Glenn a lot worse than that.
SS: But I think, look, if the question is, is April a tough reporter that comes after us all the time? Absolutely. But I’m going to make sure that I fight fiercely back on behalf of the administration and defend our policies and what’s happening. But look, I think that anyone who suggested that, and I think if you listen to some of the comments that April made back and forth afterwards, she agrees. She’s a tough reporter. She grew up in Baltimore. She knows how to mix it up with the best of them. But to suggest that somehow because of her gender or race she should be treated differently, I think, is frankly demeaning to her. She’s a tough woman that fights every day to get out there and for her publication and for her audience to get the questions that she wants answered. And I respect that. I really do.
HH: Yeah, she’s a star. I’ve been on TV with April. She can hold her own, yeah.
SS: But I think that, and again, but I have every right to, like look, and again, I think when it comes to journalists coming in and people want to talk about decorum, it’s a two-way street. I’m willing to answer any question. I’ve sat there on most days for close to an hour to answer them back and forth, and I think no matter who it is, Republican, Democrat, conservative, mainstream, we take the questions from everybody. We answer them. But I’m not, you know, I have an obligation, frankly, Hugh, that when somebody comes in and attacks the narrative or makes accusations against the administration, that, to push back and push back tough. And I don’t work and say well, I’m going to push back lighter on this person because of their gender, and I think it’s frankly, it’s the exact opposite of what Secretary Clinton went after and tried to say somehow it’s patronizing. No, in fact, it’s not patronizing. What it is, is treating April Ryan with the same pushback that I would any other reporter in that room. She’s a tough, seasoned journalist that asks tough questions. I will agree with Secretary Clinton on that. But it doesn’t suggest that we should treat people differently.
HH: Now I want to take April out of the equation. I do want to urge you to do the Saturday Night Live podium thing to Glenn sometime. Just walk over and put the podium on Glenn. But let’s go up to 30,000…
SS: I was going, I’m going to disagree a little. I was thinking he’s more deserving of the super soaker.
HH: (laughing) Okay, okay. Sorry. Are you enjoying that, by the way? I’ve known you for a long time. I never thought you would be the star of Saturday Night Live.
SS: That part, I can go without. I did this job, you know, and I know there’s a lot of folks, especially on the left, who don’t agree with this, but I believe that the President really cares about this country and that he wants to move it in the right direction. And I’m honored and humbled to play a role and help spread that message on behalf of the President. So that’s what I like being a part of. I think the other stuff is the sideshow. I understand to some degree, it goes along with the job these days, but I stay focused on trying to help articulate the President’s message.
HH: The late, great Tony Snow, who was my dear friend, and I’m sure yours as well, really liked to get into it with the White House press, as did every one of President Obama’s press secretaries, as you are doing, which is your job. So here’s my position. Keep doing this, but something has changed in the context in Washington where everything, it’s like World War T, like the movie World War Z. World War T, everything is now politicized and overwrought. Have you noticed this?
SS: I have, and I think look, Tony, I agree with you. I have a lot of respect for Tony. He’s an idol. There’s a lot of my predecessors that I think I look up to – Dana Perino, Ari Fleischer, each in their own way, handled the job differently. Tony had a way of deflecting tough questions with humor, and he had just a stature about him that commanded respect, and I looked at him a lot in terms of the way that he did the job. I think each of us has to do it in our own way, but I do think that the level of vitriol carried from the campaign trail into the briefing room, where a lot of the, it is a constant tone of negativity. There is a disposition that always assumes that something is bad or wrong that comes from the President, and I think that there’s this, there is this false narrative, if you will, that comes out of the press corps, which is somehow you can’t ask tough questions, that we have a problem with tough questions. What I have a problem with is you know, the same thing they’re frankly accusing me of today, which is the tone and the vitriol. They can sit there and lob accusations and narratives and false stories all day long, and act as though that’s their job, but I’m supposed to smile and tell them how great they are on a daily basis. I think my job, despite what some in the press believe, is to articulate to the best of my ability the President’s agenda and what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it, and to push back fiercely on, fiercely, rather, on false narratives and misstated facts.
HH: Let me go to one of those narratives. There is a narrative that Reince Priebus is in trouble. Is Reince Priebus in trouble?
SS: No, not at all. In fact, I literally before I took this call into your show, phoned both the President, and he was extolling the virtues of Reince and how hard he’s working. That is just not, nothing could be further from the truth. He has done a fabulous job of marshaling all the resources here. As I explained to someone the other day, Reince is sort of the air traffic controller in the White House, and you’ve got all these people flying different planes. Someone’s driving the health care train, someone’s talking to him about health care, somebody’s talking about some of the executive orders on immigration the President’s doing, and his job is to make sure that all those planes are flying and taking off and landing as they’re supposed to be. And so I think it’s a no-win situation. There’s a lot of external forces that are fighting against you every day, a lot of folks in the media. But he has done it. He almost works as hard as the President, if you can possibly do that. but he is committed to helping fulfill the President’s agenda.
HH: Now I want to ask you specifically about Judge Gorsuch, but first note that Amul Thapar was nominated for the 6th Circuit last week. I missed it entirely because of the news crunch that was going on with the health care bill. Are more judicial nominations forthcoming in an imminent fashion, Sean Spicer?
SS: As I think we’ll slowly start to get them out, that was the first one that came. And I think there are more coming. I think there’s a bunch of vacancies that need to get filled. Obviously, we’re busy filling some of the sub-cabinet level positions. There’s a lot of ambassadors, and then there’s obviously a lot of judicial, not just the circuit court, but obviously the U.S. Attorney spots that need to get filled. But if you look, again, the two things that I think should give every conservative and every Constitutional law professor such as yourself to feel good is that that list that the President put out early in the campaign of 21 individuals are people that understand the Constitution, who understand that they’re not there to legislate from the bench, and I think are going to be in the same kind of mold as Judge Gorsuch, somebody of high caliber that has a strong record of interpreting what the Constitution meant and not trying to legislate from the bench.
HH: Does, if the Democrats filibuster Judge Gorsuch, does President Trump support the use of the Reid Rule to break that filibuster?
SS: He has said previously that he would support that decision by Senator McConnell, but obviously, he respects Senator McConnell’s ability to navigate the Senate. You know, probably nobody on Earth understands how to, the Senate rules to the extent McConnell does, and he’s going to make sure that this happens, come hell or high water. But I think that what is disappointing to me is, and you know, and I truly am, I’ve always believed with, and I think probably share the view of Pat Leahy to some degree, which is you can disagree with somebody, but they deserve and up or down vote. And Gorsuch is the guy that I think when you, you know, when he was probably like in 11th grade or whatever and went to see the guidance counselor, and he said you’re going to be a Supreme, you know, you should be a Supreme Court justice, because he has got that pedigree. He has got that jurisprudence. He’s got the academic credentials, the judicial record in every sense. The ABA rates him well-qualified, which is their highest mark. I mean, there’s nothing more when you look at somebody. He’s got the temperament to handle this position, and I guess my concern is that if you’re a Democrat, and you don’t support this guy, who else could you, who could you possibly support?
HH: There is an effort, Sean Spicer, to say that the President did not have it all on the table in the health care bill, that he didn’t give it enough time. That’s one of the narratives. It was only 17 legislative days. I’m sure you’re familiar with it.
HH: What’s your response to that?
SS: It’s not over. The President talked about this a little last night. But look, here’s the view. I think Obama has, and I’m not looking to get fact-checked here, but I think it was said 17 fits and starts where he, it died on the vine multiple times, got revived. They tried to push the single payer system through. It wasn’t until Scott Brown got elected, and they realized that if they didn’t jam something through real quick, that…but it took 17 months, or 13, whatever it was, and multiple tries. And so the President realizes that it’s still a priority for him, but there’s a lot of people who are coming back to the table on both sides of the aisle and saying Mr. President, let’s rethink this. I think he is willing to entertain those. He understands if people want to come back to him with a consensus idea that fulfills the principles that he laid out, which is making something more patient-centric and more affordable and gives people more options, then he’s willing to engage in that discussion. But he’s put sort of the ball back in their court, to some degree.
HH: And has he had conversations with members of the Freedom Caucus over the last 24 to 48 hours about reviving this bill?
SS: You know, I don’t know, I’m trying to think. I don’t recall him having any conversations with anyone from the Freedom Caucus. He has talked to members in leadership. There was a bunch of Senators. We invited all the senators, United States Senators, Republican and Democrat, to the White House last night. The First Lady and the President had them over to the residence, so you had a bunch of side conversations there. I think there are, and then obviously, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon and other members of the staff, and the Vice President, have had conversations as well. So I don’t think, I do think that there is a continuing conversation here, but it is people coming back to the table saying you know, on second thought, I’d like to reconsider. I’d like to reengage on this. I think the President still views this as a priority. He understands how important it is to the American people. But we’re going to have to see how it goes.
HH: Last question has to do with personnel. It’s been very slow, and there is an undercurrent of stories that Secretary Mattis is in conflict with the West Wing. It never says President Trump, but the West Wing about the deputy secretary post. Is that true? And can you expand on when we’re going to get that and the deputy secretary of State filled?
SS: I would expect an announcement for deputy secretary of State very soon. I know there’s some candidates that have been finalized. I just think there’s a lot of things beyond…one of the things that people don’t fully appreciate, Hugh, is especially now that we’re in this process, is that when someone steps forward, and it was a little bit of a different process during the transition, but during this process, when you get nominated for a senior position, there’s a whole series of things that the Office of Government Ethics requires of individuals to go through in terms of their assets and their holding, and their conflicts of interest, and they want all of that cleared up now before they’re even announced. And there’s, especially if they’re Senate-confirmed, there’s a bunch of nuances about how much time they can have between when they’re announced and when the nomination technically gets sent up to the Senate, which is a lot of, you know, arcane, insider baseball stuff just to say that I think there’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline that will start coming out very soon on a lot of positions throughout the government.
HH: Well, deputy secretary of State soon, do you mean like this week?
SS: Potentially, but I don’t want to, look, I don’t, I know that they’ve finalized some things. I don’t want to get ahead of announcements. I just want you to know to your question, I think there’s a lot of positions, not just that one, but others that they’re in a pipeline that I expect you know, in the next while. Now again, part of this process is beyond us, and so I don’t want to put an artificial deadline and say this week or by Monday of next week or Tuesday, because part of it is, has to do with somebody’s assets and conflicts of interest and divestitures and things like that, that they have to take into consideration prior to an announcement.
HH: I remember it very well from White House Counsel’s days. But I’ll follow up on the original question, deputy Secretary of Defense. The massive defense buildup is coming. You need somebody to run that and help Secretary Mattis in that. Do we have a candidate identified at least?
SS: I will just tell you that I think, as I mentioned, and I’m not trying to evade your question entirely. I get it…
HH: (laughing) entirely.
SS: But I also don’t want to get out in front, and that’s something that Secretary Mattis and the President keep close to their vest. And when we have an announcement, but I expect a lot of these announcements, without trying to break any news here, that they will be, that there will be a lot of announcements coming up very soon.
HH: And the President will be back on talk radio when, Sean Spicer?
SS: As soon as we, you know, we figure out how to get that happening. But we’re looking for some time in the schedule, and would love to make it happen.
HH: The invitation’s always there. Sean Spicer, thanks for spending time with me this morning, I appreciate it very much.
SS: Thanks, Hugh, take care.
End of interview.