I had time to ask Sean Spicer, the former press secretary under President Trump for six months last year, exactly one question during his book signing at a Middletown Barnes and Noble on Friday.
I asked: “This week, reports were released saying that Michael Cohen testifies that Donald Trump knew about a meeting of campaign officials with Russians attempting to interfere with the election. You have previously stated [on a WPRI Newsmakers interview Friday] that the campaign learned about Russian tampering through reports from officials who said that there were attacks to both the RNC and the DNC, and who told you to demonstrate your confidence in the electoral process. Can you still defend that position and that confidence now?”
“I’m sorry, so what does the Cohen thing have to do with this?” he asked. “Your confidence that Donald Trump did not know about Russian interference in the election before you were notified,” I told him.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the Cohen tapes which suggest that,” he responded.
“Really?” I asked. “Even given the reports this week?”
“Again, nothing that I’ve seen,” Spicer said. “Then again, I’ve kind of been promoting a book.” He laughed. “So, sorry!”
Then he signed my copy of his new memoir, “The Briefing: Politics, the Press, and the President,” and my time was up.
It is true that there are currently no audio recordings which have been produced of a meeting between Donald Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen in which such information was divulged. Spicer’s claim, however, skirted the extensive report CNN released Friday on Cohen’s new claim that Donald Trump knew in advance of a meeting of Donald Trump Jr. with Russian officials promising damaging details on Hillary Clinton.
During the Newsmakers interview with WPRI’s Tim White and Ted Nesi on Friday, Spicer refused to comment as to whether he had been contacted by the Mueller investigation team. During the interview, Spicer chalked up the extent of “Russian meddling” to “$200,000 in Facebook ads,” saying he felt “very confident in our win.”
Spicer, who grew up in Barrington and is a former student of Portsmouth Abbey School, returned to his home state this weekend promoting his new book. A BJ’s Wholesale in Seekonk canceled Spicer’s signing there, “due to the political climate.” Signing events at Barrington Books locations in Barrington and Cranston are still on for Saturday.
A Barnes and Noble employee told me only “a few dozen” attendees had arrived by the time I got there at its 7pm start-time. There was an older couple with t-shirts emblazoned with dozens of copies of Trump’s face behind me in line. One man, standing outside of the line, screamed, “You should be ashamed of yourself! You were the mouthpiece to the largest threat to the free press!” before being led away by security. Leah McGee, an attendee in front of me in who told me she wanted to hear “what the other side has to say,” went up to Spicer and told him to his face that she disagreed with most of what he has done before he signed her copy.
A few minutes after I entered the line, a black man standing outside of the line—later identified by the Associated Press as Alex Lombard of Cambridge, Massachusetts— shouted at Spicer that he was a fellow Portsmouth Abbey student, that Spicer had tried to “fight” him, and that Spicer had called him the n-word during his time there. Lombard was quickly escorted out of the store by private security present at the event, yelling as he left, “I was a scared kid, then, Sean. I’m not scared to fight you now.”
There’s a video of the confrontation at the Newport Daily News. A representative of Spicer told the AP that the former press secretary “can’t recall any incident like this happening” and was “not sure if this was just a stunt this man was pulling.”
In a review of Spicer’s memoir in the Wall Street Journal, chief White House correspondent for ABC Jonathan Karl writes that the book contains multiple inaccuracies, such as listing an Obama-era press conference as taking place in 1999, as well as calling the president a “unicorn.” Karl also writes that Spicer says that his former boss, Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned after sending sexually explicit messages to teenage congressional pages, was “good to staff and fun to be around.”
Exactly two protestors—Lloyd Trufelman, who heard about the event while attending the nearby Newport Folk Festival, and Beth Murphy Ward—were outside the event waving signs when I exited the Barnes and Noble.
“I just felt it was important to take a stand and to show this fellow, who’s on a book tour and who’s trying to rehabilitate his reputation, to position himself as a sensible, moderate policy guy, that we’re not going to forget the fact that he lied and damaged the press and American democracy. It’s just a matter of saying, hey, you’re not going to get off that easy,” Trufelman told me.
I asked Trufelman whether he still thinks Spicer is doing damage to American democracy. “I haven’t read the book, to be honest,” Trufelman said. “So I’m not sure. You know, it really boils down to how you define ‘complicit.’ If you look at, for example, what’s happened in this country with the administration since he left, has he spoken out? For example, he’s a smart and educated man, understands policy. What were his comments after the Putin summit?”
In fact, Spicer told Fox that “no one knows exactly what was said, in the context it was said,” and that Trump would go into a future summit with his “A-game.”
“The specific Putin press conference, where Trump holds a summit, and there’s no agenda, there’s no transcript, there’s nothing that comes out of it, and he didn’t criticize?” Trufelman added. “That the thing where, as a Washington insider, he certainly knew the summit was not handled correctly and possibly put the country at risk, and he’s out here spinning and selling books.”
A woman came up to Ward and laughed at her sign as I began to walk away. “I came for the entertainment factor, but
I didn’t know you would be here!” she shouted.
One of Spicer’s first controversies was his aggrandized comments about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, telling the press “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration” before that was debunked by photo comparisons of the event for President Trump and former president Obama. It was the event that prompted Kellyanne Conway’s use of “alternative facts,” and six months of Spicer’s vicious critiques of the free press.
The Barnes and Noble parking lot, however, was nearly half-empty by the time I left, 43 minutes after I arrived.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article listed one of the two protestors as Beth Cullen. Her name is Beth Murphy Ward.