I love a good, topical lawn ornament—especially if it can perform double duty as some sort of scarecrow—so I am naturally pretty obsessed with what one brilliant woman is calling the “Garden Spicer.”
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” our president tweeted publicly today, in what was almost certainly a threat against the former FBI Director he unexpectedly fired on Tuesday. Both pointed and totally incomprehensible, it’s the sort of…
After the news on Tuesday that Donald Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, one of the most surreal moments featured White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes to stay away from the press. But Spicer clearly wasn’t happy with that description.
Don't you hate it when you go see your favorite band and they don't return for an encore? It's not just disheartening, but honestly kind of disrespectful. That's how the media (and some of the general public) felt after White House press secretary Sean Spicer snuck out of a press conference without taking any questions.
During Wednesday night's episode of Desus & Mero, the hosts dissed "the Spiceman" for literally not doing his job—which definitely stung a lot more than when artists refuse to play their biggest hits.
You can watch last night's Desus & Mero for free online now, and be sure to catch new episodes weeknights at 11 PM on VICELAND.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer had a tough day today. If you listen to the feckless mainstream media, he ran from the White House press corps this afternoon in order to avoid questions about bizarre interviews Trump has been giving. But, if you listen to the #russiagate sleuths, he ran because the lid had been blown off…
This week, famously gaffe-prone White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is in hot water after comparing Adolf Hitler favorably to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and in the process saying that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons—when in fact he gassed millions to death in concentration camps. (As of Wednesday, Spicer was still apologizing.) This is just the latest in a long string of humiliating mistakes from the Trump spokesman. But are Spicer's stumbles just a problem for the administration, or should ordinary people care that the press secretary can't get his foot out of his mouth? Politics writer Eve Peyser and politics editor Harry Cheadle debated that question today. Here's Harry's point:
Sean Spicer, whatever his faults, has a tough job: Every day, he has to go out and explain what the Trump administration is doing and why. Considering that administration is often in conflict with itself and is helmed by people who have a habit of saying things that are flat-out wrong, his task is a difficult one. Spicer started the gig having to defend a ridiculous claim by Donald Trump about the size of his inaugural crowd; his statements on the Republican healthcare plan were denounced by the left and the right; last month he had to back up his boss's bizarre (and still unproven) claim about being wiretapped by Barack Obama. To mangle a Game of Thrones quote, Trump eats and Spicer takes the shit.
As the White House press secretary, Spicer was always going to get raked over the coals by both the media and the Democrats for Trump's unpopular positions and odd tweets. That's the job, of course—he gets nearly $180,000 a year to be the mouthpiece of an administration that has made a muddle of its first three months. Spicer has added to that muddle by constantly committing gaffes, misspeaking, and at time misrepresenting the administration's positions in important ways. That's a problem for White House officials tired of "Spicer Fucks Up Again" headlines, but it's also a problem for the American people.
The job of a press secretary is to spin whatever the president does, but even that spin has a purpose—the public deserves an explanation for why missiles were launched, or why a piece of legislation is supported by the White House. Those explanations are going to be self-serving, but they can be a starting point for analysis and debate. So far, the administration hasn't done a good job of describing, for instance, its stance on Syria, which naturally confuses people, and it's at moments like these when Spicer's incoherence is actually dangerous.
Spicer claiming that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons was bad—as was his accidental claim, while apologizing for that gaffe, that Trump was trying to "destabilize" the Middle East—but he's made worse unforced errors. Earlier this week he implied, wrongly, that Trump would attack Syrian strongman Bashar Assad for using barrel bombs, which would be a major shift in policy, since barrel bombs are used daily in that conflict. He later "clarified" that statement, just as he had to "clarify" in January after saying incorrectly that the White House was endorsing an incredibly harsh import tax on goods from Mexico. Or how about the time he repeated a baseless rumor that the British spied on Trump for Obama, then denied that the White House apologized to the UK over the remark?
In all those cases, Spicer failed at the basic level of communicating what the White House was thinking—and that's his one job. Journalists depend on a press secretary who can represent an administration's positions accurately. Foreign governments want to know what the president's policy is on war and peace and trade. The public would presumably like to hear the White House's side of the story, even if that side of the story isn't the whole truth. When Spicer can't get through a press conference without spouting obvious nonsense that he has to take back hours later, he's failing all those constituencies. By adding an extra layer of incompetence to the already fraught relationship between the White House and the mainstream press, Spicer is helping no one, and looking like a moron to boot. Is that really worth paying him $180,000?
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.
This week, famously gaffe-prone White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is in hot water after comparing Adolf Hitler favorably to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and in the process saying that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons—when in fact he gassed millions to death in concentration camps. (As of Wednesday, Spicer was still apologizing.) This is just the latest in a long string of humiliating mistakes from the Trump spokesman. But are Spicer's stumbles just a problem for the administration, or should ordinary people care that the press secretary can't get his foot out of his mouth? Politics writer Eve Peyser and politics editor Harry Cheadle debated that question today. Here's Eve's point:
Much like the man he ostensibly speaks for, Sean Spicer can't get a damn thing right. The press secretary is effectively the public relations representative of the administration, and Sean Spicer is a terrible PR man. A good publicist massages the situation to make whomever he represents look good; incapable of subtlety, Spicer is barely able to utter a sentence without causing a national crisis. And his litany of alternative facts, corrections, and blunders reveal the devastating disorganization of Trump's White House.
In a press conference on Tuesday, while attempting to explain Donald Trump's decision to strike Syria by comparing Hitler to Bashar al Assad—or "Bashad al al Asee" as the press secretary pronounces it—he falsely purported that unlike Assad, "Hitler...didn't even sink to using chemical weapons." (For the record, yes, Hitler used chemical weapons in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. In fact, it was the Nazis who developed Sarin, the gas Assad used in the attack earlier this month.)
After pushback from the press, it took Spicer four tries to muster up a quasi-acceptable apology, in what became a sort of bizarre defense of Hitler. He called concentration camps "Holocaust centers" and managed to assert "[Hitler] was not using gas on his own people in the same way that Assad is doing." This didn't earn him any good will with those accusing him of anti-semitism. After more outrage and a slew of classic Spicer fuck-ups, where he suggested that unlike Hitler, Assad used chemical weapons "on innocent people," he landed on this response:
In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.
The Anne Frank Center, along with several Democrats including Nancy Pelosi, have since called for Spicer to be fired. Spicer might be shamefully offensive and reliably unreliable, but so is the administration he represents. It is nearly impossible to coherently justify a foreign policy as erratic as Trump's. Though the president enthusiastically spoke of "bomb[ing] the hell out of ISIS" throughout the campaign, he also said "we should not be focusing on Syria," and warned that Hillary Clinton would cause "World War III over Syria." If Spicer's inability to articulate Trump's stance on Syria indicates anything at all, it's that the president doesn't really have one.
In other words, the president's decision to attack Syria cannot be justified because Trump has no ideology. (Trump's communications officer recently told 30 White House staffers, "There is no Trump doctrine.") Spicer's train wreck of a press conference indicated that the president is making major military decisions on a whim. It was a thoughtless act—one that, according to Eric Trump, was influenced by Ivanka telling her father she was "heartbroken and outraged" at the atrocity. Your daughter's heartbreak is not a valid reason to start a war.
An inadvertent beacon of horrifyingly entertaining gaffes and flubs, Spicer is bad at smoothing over controversy that shouldn't be smoothed over to begin with. Like when he tried to argue that Trump's executive immigration order wasn't a Muslim ban, even though both Trump and Spicer himself had previously identified it as such. Admitting the executive order is in fact a Muslim ban is obviously not in the best interest of the administration, but perhaps a more competent press secretary wouldn't have undermined himself by telling a group of students that "the ban deals with seven countries" the day prior.
These fuck-ups don't do the administration any favors, but do we want a press secretary who makes the administration look better? Do we want another person spinning blatant racism or an unnecessary war into something digestible to the press and the American people? If we want an accurate look at the Oval Office from the briefing room, we need a press secretary as incompetent as the administration itself. On that point, Spicer delivers.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.
As the people responsible for communicating their organizations' messages to the world, PR representatives have hard jobs. But if there's a bar they have to clear at bare minimum, it's this: don't make things worse. Three high-profile PR nightmares over the past week have really hammered this point home.
On Monday, United Airlines faced a serious, visceral backlash to a video of a man being literally dragged from one of their planes after he refused to give up his seat—which turned out to be because United needed room on the plane for additional employees. United's initial strategy was to merely describe the event, and acknowledge it wasn't great, followed by a staff letter that smeared the passenger as "belligerent." Shortly after the airline's stock price plunged. Eventually, on Tuesday, United issued a basically normal apology that—and I'm just speculating here—probably would have been more effective if it come earlier in the timeline of events.
United's horrors were sandwiched between two other self-inflicted brand disasters. Last week, Pepsi released a TV spot featuring Kendall Jenner that tried (and completely failed) to make its brand message rhyme with the messages of recent political protest movements. The soda company's PR department eventually issued an apology, but, somewhat hilariously, also apologized to Jenner in the process. Then on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer—the PR rep for the Trump Presidential Brand—attempted to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sound kinda-sorta worse than Hitler by claiming that Hitler didn't use chemical weapons—despite the Holocaust having been a thing that happened. Spicer then sputtered, backpedaled, proffered four clarifications, and then finally an apology.
To find out what sort of demon has possessed some of the most powerful PR operations in the world, I got in touch with Ron Culp, who has headed PR efforts for major brands such as Sears, and fashioned himself into a guru of his trade, with a teaching position at DePaul University. Culp emphasized the importance of trusting your gut, and also, the importance of not mentioning Hitler when you don't have to.
VICE: It's now a pretty unanimous belief that United turned a serious mistake into a total catastrophe. Is there something special about United that led to this PR disaster?
Ron Culp: United has come a long way under the current CEO in rebuilding bridges with employees, and relationships that had really been tattered in the past. I'm confident that the initial statement was constructed with human resources and legal having heavier hands in the decision as to what would be said than what prevailed [in the later statement].
What do you mean when you say "United has come a long way"?
The employee relations are better there than they have been in decades, and they're working as a team, meaning the entire organization. [But] the interpretation of some rule that very much was in their operational manual, [that] went beyond what was humanly logical, created this incident.
With that as the backdrop, why would United's initial non-apology have seemed like a good idea?
[Because of] the speed at which something had to be said. Legal will always err in favor of protecting the company—meaning financial responsibilities, and making sure that we don't admit to something that we're going to end up paying [for] or saying something that legally binds us. If they could—and certainly this was the trend back in the 1990s and early 2000s—[saying] "no comment" could be better received. They need to respond very quickly, especially if you're a consumer-facing company.
What's it like in the office when a company does that?
You get all the parties in the room, and somebody takes responsibility to draft it. When I headed communications in companies, I always wanted to be the one to draft the statement because he who controls the editing controls the final message in most cases. Initially, we've got to be thinking about liability. [In] this case I think it was both a liability issue as well as wanting to show support for employees, who—I'm sure at the point that it was unfolding—said, "these are our policies!" And yes, they are. At that point they're not [yet concluding], well, those are the policies, but it still shouldn't have been this way.
What could have saved them from PR oblivion at that phase?
This is where gut instinct plays a critical role. Sometimes the mind that is trying to rationalize all the ramifications needs to give way to the gut. Anyone seeing that—to your point—would be saying, "we need to do something other than this legalese-sounding response." I headed PR at Sears for a number of years, and we learned early on that you don't make friends with customers by not treating them as if they're very important to you.
Would you say a similar gut-check could have saved Pepsi last week?
You might be the lowest person in the room, but at what point is it is your obligation to speak truth to power? And to do it in such a way that you raise a question that would help protect that company from making that blunder. Clearly no one did that. I don't know if Pepsi's communications department was involved. I can't imagine that they were—you just had to see the ad.
Who fares worse from a PR standpoint? United or Pepsi?
Pepsi got a lot of publicity out of this, and there are people who were subliminally listening to Saturday Night Live the other night, and have no idea what this issue is about. All they saw was three minutes about Pepsi, so, "Oh, I'll have a Pepsi, that's fine!" It's a flash-in-the-pan moment for a brand that is as advertising-driven as Pepsi.
One place I don't think that any-publicity-is-good-publicity approach works is the White House. Do you have any sympathy for Sean Spicer right now?
There's no doubt that he has the toughest public relations job in the world. In the old days we had two news cycles! I loved it. I could say, let's see here: I know that Mike is on deadline for a morning paper. I'll call him back around 5:00 today, or 5:30, and if it's the afternoon paper, then I've just got to call you before noon. That's not the case anymore. I don't know when he gets time to sleep. You've gotta stay on top of all the issues, and you've got a sizable staff whispering in your ears, and you've got all the policy people around the president, and of course you have the president, who's doing his own thing. As currently construed, it's an impossible job.
But then again, as a public relations officer, what did you think of that Hitler comparison?
You don't make one evil worse by referring to another, because you open—as he did—the door to misinterpretation of what he intended to say, and to a level that was embarrassing. You just don't go there.
Is there a PR rule of thumb about this?
I try to never compare anyone to anything. Describe the situation! He clearly was trying to make the situation in Syria stand apart as really as maniacal and evil as it possibly could be, but it's hard to make any comparison to what went down in the 1940s.
This conversation has been edited and compressed for clarity.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.
Spicer Apologizes for Hitler Remarks
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered an apology Tuesday night following widespread outrage over comments he felt compelled to make about Adolf Hitler. "To draw any kind of comparison to the Holocaust was inappropriate and insensitive," he said, having earlier claimed that Hitler did not use "the gas on his own people the same way Assad used them." Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called on President Trump to fire Spicer.—NBC News
Trump Says US Troops Not Joining Fight in Syria
President Trump stuck to his campaign-trail line about avoiding foreign entanglements Tuesday. "We're not going into Syria," he told FOX News in an interview set to air Wednesday. Trump added he still thought Russia should withdraw support for Bashar al-Assad's government. "Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think that's very bad for Russia. I think that's very bad for mankind."—Politico
United Airlines CEO Orders Review of Removals
Embattled exec Oscar Munoz has issued a second, more fulsome apology for the "horrific" incident in which a 69-year-old doctor was dragged off a United flight. Munoz also ordered a review of the airline's policies governing oversold flights, incentivizing volunteers, and more, saying the company would "fix what's broken so this never happens again." Roughly $1 billion had been knocked off the company's value at the end of Tuesday's trading.—The Guardian
FBI Snagged FISA Warrant to Monitor Carter Page
The feds got a warrant to surveil the communications of former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page during the campaign, anonymous officials have revealed. A judge granted the court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last summer after finding probable cause that Page was "acting as an agent of a foreign power" by working for Russia.—The Washington Post
China Calls for Calm in the Korean Peninsula
Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Trump he wants a "peaceful" solution to the escalating spat over North Korea's weapons program. The Chinese foreign ministry quoted Xi saying China wanted to work toward the "denuclearization of the peninsula" during a phone call with Trump. Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China hoped "all parties will refrain from irresponsible actions."—AP
German Soccer Team Bus Attacked with Explosives
A bus carrying the German soccer team Borussia Dortmund was hit by three explosives as the team traveled to a Champions League match Tuesday evening. Defender Marc Bartra was injured, breaking his wrist. German police are investigating a possible link to Islamist extremism after a letter found near the bus reportedly references Syria and the attack on Berlin's Christmas market.—BBC News
Eight Brazilian Cabinet Ministers Under Investigation for Corruption
A justice on Brazil's top court has ordered corruption investigations into eight cabinet ministers, including President Michel Temer's chief of staff Eliseu Padilha. Dozens of other politicians and legislators are also under fire following testimony from 77 employees of Odebrecht, a construction firm that apparently was deep into bribery.—Reuters
Militant Leader Killed by Philippine Soldiers
Philippine forces have killed a leader of the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, the country's military has announced. Moammar Askali, also known as Abu Rami, was among six militants killed in a gun battle on the island of Bohol. Four soldiers and policemen were also killed. Abu Sayyaf was thought to be responsible for the beheading of two Canadians and one German national.—Al Jazeera
Bill O'Reilly Announces Vacation
FOX News host Bill O'Reilly announced Tuesday on the O'Reilly Factor he'll be taking a two-week vacation "because it's spring and Easter time." Roughly 60 companies pulled advertising from his show after the public learned several women had accused the host of sexual harassment, and some sources believe he will never return to the air.—AP/NYMag
Kendrick Lamar Album Features U2 and Rihanna
Kendrick Lamar released the artwork and track-list for his forthcoming album DAMN on Twitter. Rihanna and U2 are the only artists listed as collaborators on his fourth record, expected to be released this Friday.—Noisey
Right-Wing Preacher Says Katy Perry 'Ruled by Satan'
Former Colorado legislator Gordon Klingenschmitt, now an evangelical preacher, has said Katy Perry is "ruled by Satan." Referring to her support for the LGBTQ community, Klingenschmitt prayed for Perry to "stop promoting sin to young people."—The Huffington Post
Uber PR Boss Steps Down
Uber's head of communications Rachel Whetstone has left the company, becoming the latest in a series of executives to resign. She did not give a reason for her departure, saying only she was "incredibly proud of the team that we've built."—Gizmodo
Grimes Is Writing a Novel
Avant-pop artist Grimes has announced that she's working on a debut novel. "This is gonna be a dang endurance test if there ever was one and don't expect anything good for like 20-25 years," she warned fans in an Instagram post.—i-D
Alabama Church Allowed to Form its Own Police Force
The Alabama Senate has voted 24–4 to allow the Briarwood Presbyterian Church to form its very own police force. Randall Marshall, director of the ACLU, said it would be unconstitutional to allow the Birmingham church its own private force.—VICE