The Slatest

What Happens When Trump’s Rhetoric Is Too Outlandish for His Press Secretary to Defend

 White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer takes questions during the daily press briefing in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Tuesday.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sean Spicer had to know the question was coming. President Trump had made headlines Monday night by reportedly claiming once again—this time in a meeting with congressional leaders—that fraudulent votes by illegal immigrants had cost him the popular vote. It’s a wild claim for which there is no credible evidence, and which has been widely and repeatedly debunked. Breaking with its own norms, the New York Times even called it a lie. (My colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley argues that’s actually the wrong word, in this instance.)

So on Tuesday, Trump’s press secretary had a ready response when reporters asked him whether the president really believed that. It just wasn’t a remotely satisfying one. And Spicer’s feeble struggle to reconcile his boss’s words with any semblance of reality provided an unsettling preview of the challenge the new administration will face in communicating with the country it’s supposed to be governing—let alone the wider world.

“The president does believe that,” Spicer said of the astonishing claim that the 2016 U.S. presidential election had been tainted by widespread voter fraud. “He has stated that before. I think he has stated his concerns of voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign, and he continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him.”

That was Spicer’s response to part one of ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega’s question. But there was a part two: “What evidence do you have?”

Unfortunately, Spicer appeared to have left the answer to part two in his other pants pocket, or perhaps the glove compartment of his car. “I … I … As I said before, I think the president has believed that for a while based on studies and information he has,” he stammered, before trying hastily to move on. The press corps wasn’t having it, and several other reporters asked follow-ups. As he fielded them, Spicer began to sound increasingly like a broken record. We learned over the course of the press conference that:

  • “It’s a belief he maintains.”
  • “It’s a belief that he’s maintained for a while, a concern that he has about voter fraud, and that’s based on information provided to him.”
  • “It has been a longstanding belief that he’s maintained.”

The closest Spicer came to offering any actual justification for Trump’s belief was to assert at one point that “I think there’s been studies—one thing came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens.” Here Spicer appeared to be conflating a 2012 Pew report on voter registration and a 2014 academic study that looked at voting patterns in the 2008 election. The Pew report does not say what Trump thinks it says, as even its own author has confirmed. And the 2014 study has been roundly debunked as evidence of large-scale voter fraud. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday that no such evidence exists.

What’s noteworthy is not that Spicer mentioned a debunked study, but that he did so in such a desultory way, and that he was so careful not to endorse Trump’s claims himself. He offered the study merely as a reason for Trump’s belief, not as something that he or anyone else ought to believe. Pressed further on what evidence exists for the claim, Spicer again lowered the needle on his locked groove, saying it’s “based on information provided to him;” “based on the information he’s been provided;” “based on studies and information he has.”

At one point near the end of the briefing, it looked as though CNN’s Jeff Zeleny was finally about to pin Spicer down. “Do you believe there was widespread voter fraud?” he asked. Spicer had just begun to stammer out an excuse that involved the phrase “it’s not my job” when Zeleny, incredibly, let him off the hook with the dreaded two-part question. “And how can he be comfortable with this win … ,” Zeleny continued, at which Spicer pivoted gratefully to a rhapsody on just how comfortable Trump was with his win.

Still, the takeaway was obvious to anyone paying attention. Trump’s own press secretary was unwilling or unable to defend the president’s explosive claim that “millions” of people voted fraudulently in the 2016 presidential election. Pressed for evidence, he ultimately resorted to saying simply that Trump “believes what he believes.”

There’s good reason for Spicer’s reticence, of course, beyond the mere fact that all available evidence indicates that it simply isn’t true. It’s that Spicer, as former communications director and chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, understands what the claims would entail if the Trump administration were to stand behind them. They would imply that election results across the country, up and down the ticket, were swayed in one direction or another by massive voter fraud, an outcome that would undermine the legitimacy of the entire U.S. democratic system. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s the sort of thing that a hostile, undemocratic regime would want people to believe about American democracy, if its goal were to weaken and destabilize it.

So, will the Trump administration launch an investigation into such voting malfeasance? Is it planning, given the president’s “longstanding belief,” to actually do anything about all of these illegal votes? Here, too, Spicer danced, shuffled, and stammered in an obvious effort to avoid answering the question. His first response that we shouldn’t “prejudge” what Trump might or might not do about voter fraud, since it’s still just “Day 2” of his administration. (It’s Day 5.) Asked if that meant such an investigation was in fact possible, he backpedaled furiously, saying, “anything’s possible,” “there is no investigation,” and “it was a hypothetical question.” Finally, he refused to discuss the matter further.

The promise of the White House press briefing in the Trump era is that it offers the media a venue in which to publicly challenge the president’s claims, while giving the administration a venue to close the gap between his loose rhetoric and the official posture of the U.S. executive branch. On Tuesday, we got a preview of what happens when that gap is too vast for even the press secretary to bridge. How he’ll try to straddle it next is anyone’s guess.