Press secretary Sean Spicer’s absence from the briefing room on Wednesday comes at a tenuous time, as President Donald Trump has asked senior advisers for weeks if he needs to change the face of his administration, several White House officials and outside advisers to the president said.
Trump was pleased with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ performance on Friday when she first filled in for Spicer on camera during the midday briefing, three White House aides said, adding that he has talked about grooming her for Spicer’s more visible role.
They said the press team’s much-criticized handling of Trump’s decision Tuesday to fire FBI Director James Comey may have further made the case to Trump that Sanders should take over the podium.
Trump has asked senior aides for their opinions about her performance since Friday. He thought she did well again on Wednesday when she had the difficult task of taking questions about Trump’s blockbuster announcement that he’d ousted Comey, one White House official said.
Sanders will cover the briefings for the rest of the week since Spicer is on naval reserve duty, as he was last Friday when she took the podium. Naval reservists are required to serve one weekend per month and 10 days per year.
Two people familiar with the White House dynamic said Spicer offered to stay and help instead of going on his reserve duty, but Trump declined. Spicer did not respond to a request for comment. An ally said he returned to the White House Wednesday night and was on good terms with Trump.
Sanders brushed off questions about a new role for her. "This is another ridiculous story. Sean is doing a great job, and I enjoy working with him," she told POLITICO.
Trump so far has said publicly he is comfortable with Spicer’s performance. But the White House official who said Trump was complimentary of Sanders on Wednesday said the president also had asked senior officials for their thoughts on changing Spicer’s role.
Stu Loeser, who acted as press secretary under former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said he saw comparisons to the early administration of former President Bill Clinton, who also dealt with drama in his communications shop. George Stephanopoulos, now an anchor for ABC News, was moved to a more internal role from his position as de facto press secretary in Clinton’s White House just five months after Clinton’s first inauguration, following a series of bad briefings and missteps.
"The parallels, at least at the superficial level, are pretty remarkable," Loeser said. "Coming into office, promising to shake up the culture of Washington …. governing by competing power centers within the White House, inability to get people confirmed for key posts, and now possibly getting rid of your early spokesperson."
Spicer’s absence comes as Trump is already frustrated with his press team’s reaction to the Comey bombshell. He believed Tuesday night that surrogates should have been prepared to go on television and defend his controversial decision quickly, aides and advisers said. He was also angry that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer managed to hold a press conference before Trump’s surrogates could make their case.
“Last night was an example of gross incompetence,” one White House official said.
Shortly after Spicer announced the Comey decision, he told reporters in the briefing room there would be no further comments. But minutes later in his office, his team gathered to figure out how to handle the situation, which they had gotten little advance warning of to prevent the firing from leaking.
Trump ordered Kellyanne Conway, who was in Michigan and West Virginia with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, to go on television shortly after she arrived at the White House. He also wanted Sanders to make appearances. He complimented both of their performances on FOX News host Tucker Carlson’s show, according to two senior administration officials.
Several reporters wrote on social media Wednesday that Sanders had a smoother delivery than Spicer, whose voice often rises, his eyes widening, as he gets frustrated at questions from the pack, who he sometimes orders to "settle down."
"Sanders obfuscates same as Spicer. Also does it without making deeply personal, petty, condescending," New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted. "One Trump supporter emails that the "temperature" in the briefing room has come down dramatically."
"Sanders is better at briefing than Spicer," CNBC’s John Harwood tweeted.
Loeser said Sanders seems to do better with reporters, but they are only one of the many audiences a press secretary needs to serve.
"It’s undoubtedly true that the press corps like her better," he said. "But it could be the inadvertent case of good cop-bad cop, where Spicer is the bad cop and she is the good cop. But you shouldn’t forget, good cop is still a cop."
Trump has told associates he wouldn’t fire Spicer because he pulls in good ratings – often beating the daytime soap operas as the cable channels carry his daily briefings live.
At the start of the administration, Spicer’s press conference brought combined ratings of about 4.3 million viewers. This past Monday, about 3 million people tuned in during the hour Spicer was on television, according to Nielsen ratings of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. When Sanders was at the podium on Friday, the ratings were 2.7 million across the three cable channels. The rest of this week will provide a better picture of Sanders’ ratings.
"Spicer rates," one top Republican aide on Capitol Hill said. "That’s the top thing that matters."
But before Spicer gets back to the podium, he’s got to get past Melissa McCarthy. Her dead-on impersonation of Spicer has bothered Trump, and she will host Saturday Night Live this weekend.
“That may be the death knell,” a White House official said snarkily.
Annie Karni , Josh Dawsey and Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.