By Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker,
White House press secretary Sean Spicer is expected to transition to a more behind-the-scenes role overseeing communications strategy, part of a broader overhaul of the administration’s most public facing operation that has long been the subject of President Trump’s ire and criticism.
Spicer’s anticipated move away from the briefing room podium, confirmed by a senior White House official, comes amid weeks of frustration from Trump with his communications team, and after the White House had already made overtures to a range of Republicans about taking jobs within the West Wing press operation.
“We have sought input from many people as we look to expand our communications operation,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement. “As he did in the beginning, Sean Spicer is managing both the communications and press office.”
No official announcement has been made about Spicer’s move and discussions concerning his role are ongoing, including whether he would still occasionally appear at the podium.
Spicer’s retreat from public view has occurred slowly — yet publicly — over the past month.
Early in Trump’s presidency, Spicer’s on-camera briefing was an almost-daily, must-watch occurrence — a combative, freewheeling spectacle between Spicer and the restive press corps. Trump boasted that the Spicer show got incredible ratings and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” parodied it week after week.
But recently, the White House briefing had receded from its place of daily prominence, and Spicer with it. Spicer took to holding some briefings off-camera, as he did Monday, or deploying Sanders as his substitute, or even inviting a Cabinet official to brief reporters. Some days, there has been no briefing at all.
At one point, the White House considered deploying a rotating cast of briefers, in part to prevent the president, who has a short attention span, from growing bored or angry with his press secretary. And, if Spicer ultimately steps away from the podium, it remains unclear if the West Wing plans to fill the press secretary role with just one person.
White House Communications Director Mike Dubke — a longtime Republican operative with establishment pedigree who never quite gelled with Trump’s chaotic, insurgent operation — resigned from his post last month, and Spicer had already unofficially taken on some of Dubke’s off-camera messaging duties.
Spicer, who has years of Washington communications experience, is now expected to focus more on message development and strategy, rather than serving as one of the administration’s most visible public figures.
Even before Dubke’s resignation, the president had been frustrated with his communication’s team, which he felt was not always defending him as forcefully as he would have liked, or offering a clear, powerful message.
And in recent weeks, the White House had reached out to a number of seasoned Republican hands, feeling them out about everything from the press secretary job to the communications director role, according to someone familiar with the conversations. The Trump administration, however, has had trouble filling a number of posts, and the communications shop is no different.
Trump officials had approached Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk-radio host and friend of the president; Geoff Morrell, who served as the Pentagon press secretary for more than four years under former defense secretary Robert Gates; and Scott Reed, the senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others.
David Martosko — the U.S. political editor of DailyMail.com, who during the campaign earned a reputation for flattering coverage of Trump, with whom he had a personal relationship — also recently spoke to West Wing officials about the communications operation, but is not expected to be offered any role, a senior administration official said.
The press shake-up underscores the president’s dissatisfaction with both his communications team — in February, he graded himself a “C” or “C-plus” on messaging — and Spicer as its most public figure from his perch behind the podium.
Nonetheless, Trump had long provided mixed signals to Spicer, at times calling him to congratulate the press secretary on what a great a job he was doing, only to begin polling his friends and confidants about whether he should fire Spicer. But, just moments later, he added, “The broader point here is that everyone who serves the president serves at the pleasure of the president.”
On Monday, during his off-camera press briefing, Spicer seemed to inadvertently channel some of the uncertainty that comes from working under Trump. Asked if the president still has full confidence in his deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, Spicer replied, “The president has confidence in everyone who serves him in this administration.”