There was a time, not that long ago I’m embarrassed to admit, when I would daydream about being the White House Press Secretary for a Republican president. As a spokesperson for Jon Huntsman and Jeb Bush, it’s clear this was a rather ridiculous dream, given the outcome of those campaigns, but it was something I would think about nonetheless.
As a political junkie in college, I looked up to people like Tony Snow and Dana Perino, took notes on their style of jabbing with a hostile press. As a rapid response chief at the Republican National Committee, I would watch Jay Carney and Josh Earnest’s briefings, feed reporters questions that might trip them up, and visualize how I would handle a certain question were I in their shoes.
Through it all I became rather intoxicated by the challenge of the job. It was the pinnacle of competition for an unathletic bullshitter like me. Verbal jousting at the highest level.
As I got into politics I found that this sparring was part of what people would call, appropriately, “the game.” The spokespeople try to figure out how to put the best spin on something, box opponents into a corner, or flip the script on those trying to tarnish the boss. The reporters and the operatives on the other side would try to catch the spin artists in hypocrisies, expose partial truths, or address problems they wanted to ignore.
The game had its unspoken rules. Forbidding maliciousness and duplicity. A shared understanding that all parties were shading the truth or the facts in their favor but that the arguments were at least based in something that is true. At the highest levels there was a respect for the gravity of the job. That White House spokespeople were representing the President, yes, but that they also represented the whole country, not just those who voted for their man.
Those rules were maintained by the referees in the Washington establishment who conferred respect and seriousness on the job. Press secretaries were given a leash to defend their boss and spin the facts in their favor, but when they crossed the imaginary lines they were called out by the press and leaders in the opposition party. And when things went way overboard, they were chastised by those in their own party. There was the time Scott McClellan lied about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby’s involvement in the Valerie Plame leak and credibility questions dogged his briefings. Mike McCurry famously said that his job was to “tell the truth slowly” during the Lewinsky saga and admitted he intentionally kept himself in the dark about some of the more inconvenient Clinton truths.
Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House was premised on the fact that these moments proved that all of these Washington norms and mores were performative bullshit. That the reality is everyone was a liar, looking out only for themselves. That nobody actually believed in the imaginary rules of the game, so there was no sense in following them.
And when Kayleigh McEnany took the podium for the first time, it was clear that all the pretense of the past was long gone and that the game had changed, maybe for good.
Her Friday briefing was the first time any press secretary had held a televised press conference in over 100 days. The third question she got was from an Associated Press White House reporter who looked like every hopeless TV character who has ever had to deal with a narcissistic protagonist in asking, “Will you pledge to never lie to us?”
In other words, can we restore the rules of the game?
What McEnany replied to the question was irrelevant. Her answer was her presence at the lectern.
The briefing had been mocked from the Day One declaration that Supreme God Trump had assembled the largest gathering in the history of the world to honor his ascension to the crown, of course. But Kayleigh marks the apotheosis of a progression from career party hacks Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders to accomplished businessman-cum-TV personality Anthony Scaramucci to ghost of Christmas present Stephanie Grisham/Griswold/Grinnell (who could remember) to a person who has absolutely no qualification for the job or interest in doing it in the spirit it was intended whatsoever.
That a person whose three-year long career was premised entirely on a lack of shame, a willingness to “go there” and a propensity for telling preposterous lies that are completely untethered from reality was elevated to the job of White House Press Secretary in the first place told the AP reporter, Jill Colvin, all she needed to know.
UNLIKE MOST OF HER PREDECESSORS as White House Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany didn’t come to the job with a background as a reporter or a career press secretary. She never had a prominent role in a political campaign or in government. Instead she is the first of a new type of press secretary, one that if current trends are any indication we will have to get used to. She blazed the path to the podium on the back of her experience as an internet troll turned cable news pundit. (Fun fact: McEnany was rejected by Fox before getting scooped up by CNN’s Jeff Zucker who was looking for a new “character in a drama” — his words — who was willing to defend Donald Trump on the network. And what a character she has become).
In this way, and others, her elevation mirrors that of her boss.
In her supporting role on CNN’s production of “The Orange King,” McEnany has learned from Trump’s approach to public relations: discard all modesty in paeans to the Trump brand and admit no wrongdoing, no matter the absurd lengths required to do so.
In her career as a Trump shill, she turned his most despicable actions into signs of his greatness. She argued that President Obama was in fact the founder of ISIS, that the “grab them by the pussy” tape “implied consent” and that his defense of the Charlottesville white supremacist protesters was a message of “love and inclusiveness.”
Like the President she also is skilled at tippytoeing across the alt-right tightrope, giving herself just enough room to claim that she is the aggrieved and it is her critics who are the real racists.
The Tampa native is a noted anti-anti-Confederate (“the flag shows southern pride”), has stoked fear about “black panthers with guns” at voting locations, and has argued that police violence against black men has nothing to do with our history of slavery or racism.
On twitter, she wrote that President Obama’s brother is “still in that hut in Kenya” and called President Obama “son” — a despicable slur that would have disqualified her from the job in a time when the rules of the game still applied. Here in our time it barely registered as a ripple, after-all her new boss, chief of staff Mark Meadows, and her bosses boss, the President, also trafficked in birtherism and racial slurs against the last President.
McENANY’S ANSWER TO THE LIE QUERY was, of course, a lie. “I will never lie to you; you have my word on that.”
Minutes later, clad in a prominent crucifix necklace, she was accusing the dozens of Trump sexual-assault accusers of being liars and attesting to the fact that President Trump had “always told the truth” in denying the charges on the basis that none of these women were his type.
The new thing about this briefing, the one where the rules have been thrown out the window, is that these were lies that everyone in the room knew were coming and nobody really cared. Colvin knew the answer would be a lie when she asked it. McEnany knew it was a lie she was going to tell. OAN and Fox knew they’d make the questioner appear unfair, riddled with Trump Derangement Syndrome. CNN and MSNBC knew they’d breathlessly replay the lies and the liar. Everyone in the room would play their assigned role.
So what President Trump has done is remake a flawed game in his own image. The old rules weren’t perfect. When Ari Fleischer can use these rules to spend years breezing past uncomfortable questions about the Iraq War and WMDs, it’s clear the game is not pure. But just because the glorified past didn’t result in unfettered “truthiness,” doesn’t mean that there isn’t a significant impact in the Trumpian degradation from one where combatants endeavored to color the truth to one where the concept of adhering to truth is mocked.
Instead of unspoken rules, policing each other, balancing politics and public service, the briefing is now simply a performance, a charade. The difference between heavyweight boxing and professional wrestling.
Among the previous secretaries such a charade felt exhausting and pointless and gross. But as the years went on the differentness of it began to dull.
Amid the pandemic though — at a time when more than ever it is critical that the press secretary serves all of the constituents and speaks honestly about what they should be doing to stay safe and how to plan for the choppy waters ahead — the bullshit charade goes from preposterous to dangerous. Lives hang in the balance. Going back to at least acting as if we believe that it matters seems like it would be an improvement.