You may have read a story recently about Press Secretary Sean Spicer calling his staff into an “emergency meeting” and making them dump their phones out onto a table in attempt to root out any leakers in his midst. (He also reminded them that White House staff using encrypted messaging apps like Signal was a violation of federal law.) The story, which was broken by Politico, painted an unflattering portrait of the culture Spicer has cultivated inside his office:
The campaign to sniff out a series of damaging leaks, which Spicer is convinced originated from his communications department, has led to a tense environment in the West Wing. During meetings, the press secretary has repeatedly berated his aides, launching expletive-filled tirades in which he’s accused them of disclosing sensitive information to reporters and saying that they’ve disappointed him.
But one anecdote in particular stood out. Reporters Annie Karni and Alex Isenstadt, citing two sources, stated that at a recent meeting “Spicer harshly criticized some of the work deputy communications director Jessica Ditto had done, causing her to cry.” Spicer declined to comment specifically on whether he called his staffers into a room to inspect their phones, but he did offer an on-the-record rebuttal of the accusation that he brought a deputy to tears, stating:
“The only time Jessica recalls almost getting emotional is when we had to relay the information on the death of Chief Ryan Owens,” Spicer said, referring to the Navy SEAL killed recently in action in Yemen.
Though it appears some ten paragraphs down in the Politico story, this quote about Owens, the American operative who died in the first military raid conducted by the Trump administration, is important. About six hours after Politico posted their report, a story appeared on a site called the Washington Examiner under the headline, “Claim: Reporter laughs at Trump aide’s emotion over SEAL death.” Written by a reporter named Paul Bedard, it alleges that Politico’s Isenstadt disrespected the memory of a dead veteran while on the phone with Spicer:
Unsaid, according to White House officials, is that Isenstadt appeared dismissive and laughed at Spicer’s answer.
“He started laughing about that SEAL,” said one informed official, also upset at Politico’s “insulting” description of Ditto in the story as a “more junior spokesperson.”
The Examiner’s story was, quite obviously, an attempt by the White House to trash a reporter who had written an unseemly story about the inner workings of Spicer’s staff. This fact is very transparent: There’s no way that Bedard could have known what had transpired on a phone call between Isenstadt and Spicer unless he had been told so by one of the two parties, and indeed he cites “White House officials” as his lone source. The flow of information is clear, but by using the term “White House officials,” Bedard obscures who, specifically, leaked him this info.
A Politico editor denied the White House’s claims about Isenstadt’s behavior to Bedard, saying that Isenstadt had instead “chuckled” at Spicer’s hostile response to his reporting. The story should have more or less ended there with the journalists and the administration locked in a he-said, she-said where either side could be the bad guy depending on the perspective one brings to the news. (Trump himself is an expert, of course, in exploiting this dynamic.) But Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple did a little digging into the fight between Politico and the White House, and what he found revealed Sean Spicer to be so incompetent in his attempts to be a crafty Washington media manipulator that it’s almost—almost!—kind of sad.
According to Wemple, Politico says that in conversations between Spicer and Isenstadt previous to the publication of their story, Spicer had threatened to leak the unflattering counter-story of Isenstadt supposedly laughing at a SEAL’s death if he reported that Spicer had made a subordinate cry. This is a shitty and hubristic move, but it would have been impossible to prove otherwise… except for the fact that Spicer reiterated that claim a second time in an email. Emails, as you know, are able to be preserved, and shown to other people, such as media reporters. Writes Wemple:
Isenstadt and Spicer traded emails about the story on Sunday, when the story was published. Again Spicer brought up the laughter allegation and pledged to Isenstadt that he “will be sure to get that out.” Not long after, Bedard was in Isenstadt’s email citing White House “insiders” who’d entrusted him with a “nugget.”
So, Sean Spicer is on record threatening to leak an almost certainly fake story about a reporter to a competing outlet in retaliation for a well-sourced almost certainly true story, and then doing exactly that. If you’re going to try and ruthlessly intimidate the press—and fail, by the way—you really should not put it in writing. Doing so makes you look less like the conniving but effective House of Cards villain you’re imagining in your head and more like, well, the overgrown, overmatched, manchild you see when you turn on TV.