Sean Spicer quit as White House press secretary on Friday after it became clear Donald Trump was hiring Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier, as his new communications director.
It was not only the latest indication of chaos and dysfunction at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but also cause for something like mourning among a legion of viewers and satirists. In the space of six months Spicer had become a reality TV celebrity.
It was 5.39pm on a cold, grey Saturday in January, the day of the women’s march in Washington, when Spicer first strode to the podium in the James S Brady Press Briefing Room. There were some empty seats, but those present were treated to an extraordinary tirade in which Spicer angrily denounced the media and falsely claimed: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.
Distinguished journalists who thought they had seen it all grimaced. One sighed: “I feel like I’m back at school, being given a ticking off by the head teacher.” A correspondent told his viewers that Spicer “tore a strip off the media as wide as an Iowa farm”
But although he began like judge and jury, in the months that followed, Spicer, 45, increasingly came to resemble a prisoner in the dock, wilting under cross-examination and caught out in self-contradictions. The daily press briefings became a must-watch like courtroom TV and a gift that kept on giving to comedians, most notably Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.
There were misleading statements, incoherent statements and offensive statements. In March, Spicer stepped up to the lectern with an upside-down American flag badge on his lapel – which in flag protocol is a sign of distress.
Perhaps most notoriously, in April he was forced to apologise for making an “inappropriate and insensitive” statementcomparing Adolf Hitler to the Syrian president Bashar Assad by suggesting that the Nazi leader “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons”. With panic in his eyes, he also referred to “Holocaust centres” instead of extermination camps.
In May, when Trump fired James Comey as director of the FBI, Spicer delivered an impromptu, much mocked briefing in the dark near some bushes in the White House grounds. His explanation for Comey’s dismissal was undermined by the president soon after.
Trump reportedly admired Spicer’s “great ratings” and insisted he would not fire him. But the writing on the wall was obvious when the press secretary, a Catholic, went on Trump’s first foreign trip only to be denied a meeting with the Pope. Even some of his adversaries in the White House press corps felt sympathy.
In recent weeks it has been a slow fade to black. More and more of the daily press briefings were delivered off camera – it was widely suspected this was because Spicer did not want his boss to watch – and increasingly the duty was handed to deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Spicer appeared on 26 June and again this Monday, when a reporter said: “We miss you, Sean.” He replied flatly: “Well, I miss you too.”
His final words from the podium were prosaic and not for the history books: “Thank you, guys. Hope to have you get a good look at what’s going on outside, and the pool will do a great job. Thanks.”