US press secretary speaks of Irish heritage and administration’s initial steps
Two weeks into the administration of the 45th president of the United States, Donald J Trump, his most public defender, press secretary Sean Spicer, is sitting in his office in the West Wing of the White House reflecting on a tumultuous start to the presidency.
“We’ve done 22 executive actions. We rolled out a supreme court associate justice that was flawless,” said the Irish-American spin doctor late on Friday afternoon, hands behind his head and feet up on a coffee table, leaning back in his chair. “You always have lessons learned about what you could do but if you look at the vast majority, I think we had a great first two weeks.”
Spicer (45), the Rhode Island native and former communications director of the Republican national committee, is putting a positive spin on Trump’s first fortnight.
The new president has imposed a travel ban (halted temporarily on Friday by a federal judge) on immigrants from seven Muslim countries and suspended the US refugee programme, triggering mass demonstrations in major US cities and airports. He has ordered the construction of his controversial wall along the border with Mexico, vexing his southern neighbours with his promise to make them pay for it.
The new president has also claimed widespread voter fraud in an election he won, repeatedly and obsessively bragged about his election victory and even asked people to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poor ratings as his successor on the new Celebrity Apprentice.
“It’s been a whirlwind; it’s been exciting, absolutely,” said Spicer, appearing relaxed at the tail end of his second week in the firing line at the podium in the White House press briefing room, make-up still in place from his televised daily press briefing a few hours earlier.
His boss may have flown off a few hours earlier for his first weekend as president in Mar-a-Lago, his luxury resort in Florida, but his press secretary throws his eyes several times up at the TV screens piping multiple news channels into his office as he speaks.
The stocky New England bruiser has been in the eye of Trump’s stormy first days in power, occasionally showing an adulterous relationship with the truth. In his first official statement from the White House podium he yelled at reporters for “deliberate false reporting” in understating the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. (They hadn’t.) He stormed off when he was finished. “Alternative facts” was what his colleague Kellyanne Conway said he was presenting.
Spicer later clarified that when he said during the briefing that Trump’s was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”, he was including the people watching online. He has scolded the media for unfairly calling the immigrant ban “a ban”, yet the president has called it “a ban” and Spicer himself has called it “a ban”.
A sketch by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live this weekend satirising the new press secretary is already going down as TV gold.
But two weeks on from his first press conference, Spicer is sticking to his guns.
“Yes and no,” he said, when asked whether things could have been handled better with the media. “I think, for example, on that first day I probably should have taken some questions but I also think that in a lot of cases with the press our job is to make sure we are correcting the record.”
He defends the president’s own early record in office against a concerned international community fearful of the no-holds-barred implementation of Trump’s “America First” doctrine.
“You’ve got a president that’s putting our safety, our economic growth front and centre, and I think he is reasserting our place through the globe,” said Spicer, pointing, by way of example, to the hard right turn taken in slapping new sanctions on Iran over a ballistic missile test.
Trump’s press man insists the president’s economic plans – sharply reducing the US corporate tax rate in an overhaul of the tax code and threatening a border tax on the imports of US firms that relocate manufacturing to lower-cost countries – should not be seen as a threat to Ireland.
“Ireland, frankly, did a really good job of getting the Celtic Tiger by bringing industry and business over there through smart policy,” he said.
“One of the things that the president talked about during the campaign was we have got to be smarter when it comes to tax and regulatory policy.”
Spicer says that “hopefully” a smarter American tax code will not disadvantage Ireland. “Ireland did very, very well because it was very, very competitive. I think the United States lost out in a lot of cases because it wasn’t competitive but competition is good,” he said.
The predicament for the undocumented Irish is less clear. Many who have lived in the US for years are law-abiding and contribute to their communities. Spicer says the focus of plans to crack down on illegal immigration is on those who have committed a crime or who “are not productive members of society”.
“We are going to walk through this in a very systematic, methodical way,” he said.
The concern among the undocumented Irish is that those who commit traffic offences, such as running a stop sign or red light, for example, may fall into Trump’s net. Spicer fudges, appearing to suggest that they are not the administration’s focus.
“You got to remember that number one, first and foremost, being in this country is a privilege, not a right, but again I think the president has got a big heart and I think we are going to walk through this in a very systematic way,” he said.
Spicer, the great-grandson of an Irish immigrant, rejects the suggestion that the US, a nation of immigrants, is becoming anti-immigrant under Trump.
“Our nation has a very robust legal system of immigration . . . we are a nation of laws and so coming to our country through the proper channels is key. You can’t break the law to come here to live. It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“So I think, frankly, we are probably among the most lax when it comes to the countries of the developed world in terms of our immigration laws.”
On the possibility of new legal work visas for the Irish, such as the E3 visas contained in the 2013 Senate immigration Bill that was dead on arrival in the House of Representatives, Spicer says the administration is looking at major changes.
“They are looking at reforming the entire visa system and doing it in a much more merit-based way so we are bringing people over here with the right skills so they can be productive,” he said.
The US Navy Reserve officer speaks fondly of his Irish heritage and of William Spicer, his great-grandfather, who he said immigrated from Kinsale. The Corkman won a medal of honour “for extraordinary heroism” sweeping mines (much like his great-grandson) for the US Navy in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Spicer recalls stories of his great-grandfather in retirement taking a very vocal interest in a storied US Navy ship docked below his apartment in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island.
“He would literally walk down every day. Even in retirement he wouldn’t give up. He was kind of making sure that they took care of the ship. So he would walk down and bark orders,” he said.
Spicer is looking forward to the Taoiseach’s visit over the St Patrick’s Day festivities – an issue that is “near and dear” to him, as he said at a press briefing. For the first time he will have a front-row seat to the highest-profile event on St Patrick’s Day, a day he has celebrated every year.
“I have been in Washington for twentysomething years and it is a big day. You watch the prime minister come, that lunch that they have on the Hill,” he said, referring to the traditional congressional lunch hosted by the speaker of the House of Representatives. “I have always seen it from afar and so now it is neat to have what will be a much different seat.”
“It is one of those days that really brings everyone together,” he said, pointing to the speaker’s lunch and the rare cross-party camaraderie that the event generates on Capitol Hill.
From the White House’s perspective, planning for the visit is still some time away. “We are at the end of week two and we really haven’t gotten into March yet,” he said. “There are so many folks here that are going to be excited to celebrate,” he said, acknowledging the other White House staff members of Irish background: Conway, Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his national security adviser, Mike Flynn.
“I think we’re attracted to good movements,” he said, offering an explanation as to why there are several Irish-Americans in prominent roles at the Trump White House. “And the president is leading a solid movement.”
Asked about the Taoiseach’s comments that he would consider inviting Mr Trump to Ireland and whether the president would accept the invite if it came, Spicer responded enthusiastically.
“I would definitely push for it,” he said, but quickly added it was not his place to say.
Spicer’s family love their Irishness. His sister is named Shannon and brother Ryan. He has visited Ireland several times. On one occasion, the entire family travelled the island “like a pack” in a van, moving from one bed and breakfast to the next. He returned with a love (and sometimes cases) of Smithwick’s but settles for Guinness because he finds the former hard to find in the US.
Following his animated declaration about the Taoiseach’s upcoming visit at a press briefing – a rare cheery moment during heated exchanges with the press – a photograph circulated on social media showing Spicer wearing a pair of green-and-white shamrock trousers on a previous St Patrick’s Day. He is not sure whether he will dig them out of his wardrobe next month.
“I only wear them once a year. We’ll see,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re White House-appropriate.”