The week now ending was peak Trump, with extra sauce and two scoops of ice cream, a staggeringly strange and terrifying political spectacle. But somehow, at its height, Sean Spicer managed to steal the show, in classic Spicerian fashion: in the dark, with his staff, in bushes on the White House Lawn, pursued by reporters, saying, “Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off.”
The Washington Post, which reported this contretemps, the next day issued a correction, which spoke of the White House press secretary’s comic punctiliousness, which was even funnier given the blizzard of obvious untruth: Spicer was not “in” the bushes, but “among” them.
In the same way that Jeb Bush was the perfect foil for Donald Trump in the primaries, Spicer has been, during the past 120-ish days, the long-suffering beta to Trump’s alpha, intrepidly pushing forward but never quite safe from the bully’s wrath. This week, especially, Spicer has been a figure of pathos, with rumors swirling that he was going to be replaced. With the administration’s adults—Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn, etc.—apparently in a secure undisclosed location, it was left to Spicer, who was given all of an hour to devise a media strategy, to take the fall for the massive and continuing explosion his boss touched by firing F.B.I. director James Comey.
The president was said to be deeply displeased with Spicer’s efforts—and he was presented with a possible replacement. With Spicer on pre-scheduled Navy Reserve duty at the Pentagon this week, Spicer’s deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, sardonic, quippy, and forceful, was now at the podium for the daily press briefings. His absence stoked a Politico report published Wednesday night, claiming that Trump was monitoring Sanders’s performance closely to see if she could take over Spicer’s role, and had “asked senior advisers for weeks if he needs to change the face of his administration.”
But Spicer, if nothing else, is a survivor. When I spoke to an associate of Spicer’s shortly after his nadir—an ill-conceived Hitler comparison that ended with the phrase “Holocaust centers”—he predicted that Spicer would not get fired. “The bar is pretty damn low,” he said. “People expect stuff like this from Trump [and] his team . . . look at the other long list of gaffes.” Indeed, after a few long-faced apologies, Spicer was spotted later that week reading aloud to children at the White House Easter Egg Roll. “I’m not firing Sean Spicer,” Trump reportedly said in a conversation. “That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.” (According to Axios’s Mike Allen, that includes the president, who often watches Spicer while he eats lunch, cranking the volume, shushing White House visitors, and criticizing each play-by-play “like it’s SportsCenter.”)
Sanders’s current prominence, in the most dramatic week of Trump’s young presidency, was an accident of scheduling. “Everyone considered this week would be a down week, a quieter week because the House was in recess and that the health-care bill would have either passed or failed,” said a Spicer ally. Spicer is required to spend 10 days per year fulfilling his duties in the Navy Reserve, and it seemed like a perfect week to take days off and give Sanders a test run. But Trump makes planning difficult.
In the soap-opera theatrics of the administration, the appearance of a new player often means that someone else is headed out the door. Paul Manafort, brought on the campaign to plot Trump’s convention, soon supplanted former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. General H.R. McMaster, upon taking Mike Flynn’s job at the National Security Council, swiftly purged the institution of Flynn’s allies, including senior adviser Steve Bannon.
Sanders, who made a name for herself as one of Trump’s most effective surrogates during the campaign, had been growing in the president’s esteem over the past several months. A tipping point came after Stephen Miller, the Breitbart alum turned presidential adviser, unnerved the country with his stilted, strident defense of Trump’s travel ban. “He was not pleased with Miller’s performance . . . and how poorly he did in his demeanor and messaging,” said the Spicer associate. “That’s when Trump made it clear that Sarah should do more television, because—again, going back to her performance during the campaign—he felt that she was a much more proven and effective spokesperson.”
The plotline falls apart a bit when scrutinized more closely. Fierce on the podium, Sanders is collegial backstage. A Spicer ally described Sanders as a low-drama, “very nice” person who had a great working relationship with her boss, Spicer. “She’s got a great reputation, and everyone on the White House team wants her in their foxhole,” said the ally. “She’s a no-drama person who believes in just playing her role with no cynical agenda.”
“There’s no attempt by Sarah to one-up Sean or to prove she can replace him, to my knowledge,” the associate said. “She’s not that kind of person, as far as what I know and what I’ve seen.”
Sanders’s first day on the podium, on probably the most amazing days in politics since the Lewinsky scandal, was, graded on a curve, a success. “Sanders obfuscates same as Spicer. Also does it without making deeply personal, petty, condescending,” said The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman in a tweet. But Trump kneecapped her the very next day by telling Lester Holt that he had always planned to fire Comey, “regardless” of what the Department of Justice had told him. Sanders, who had definitively told the press the day before that Trump had primarily made the decision to fire Comey based on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, was forced to concede that she had not told the truth. “I gave you the best information that I had at the moment,” she admitted Finally, Trump rode to Sanders’s rescue on Twitter.
Spicer was originally a Reince Priebus protégé, but he’s as well-liked as long-suffering. Spicer’s camp is trying to determine who might have the knives out for him. “I’ve heard some grumblings that Gary Cohn and the Kushners are the only people that [have had] any negative pushback on Sean,” said the associate.
In another accident of timing, this weekend, Melissa McCarthy, hosting Saturday Night Live, will reprise her Sean Spicer impression, which is said to be particularly galling to Trump—she’s already been seen driving her motorized podium down 59th Street. It’s not clear yet who, if anyone, will play Sarah Huckabee Sanders—but, as with Spicer, the last week has provided some very rich material.
Do you have an unusual story to tell? E-mail email@example.com