This is probably as close as we’ll get to a mea culpa in Trump World.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer came out for his first official briefing Monday afternoon resembling not at all the madman who unleashed his fury from the same podium Saturday evening. He smiled. He didn’t shout. His suit fit. The lectern had been lowered so he could see over it. And he took questions – not just from friendly outlets but from American Urban Radio (which has an African-American audience) and Univision, the Hispanic network Donald Trump disparaged during his campaign.
He tried, in his way, to climb down from his preposterous performance on Saturday, acknowledging that he spouted untruths – innocently, he proposed.
“I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts,” Spicer declared. “There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out, but our intention is never to lie to you.”
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Actually, Trump and his aides spent much of the past 18 months disagreeing with the facts, and it defies credulity that it wasn’t intentional. On Saturday, Spicer, the previously little-known spokesman for the Republican National Committee, became an instant laughingstock when he hauled the press into the White House briefing room and, in a comically big suit, started shouting about a couple of tweets he didn’t like. Like his boss, who asserted the patent nonsense that there were 1.5 million people at his inauguration, Spicer declared: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” He then stormed off, refusing to take questions.
A social-media meme was born – SpicerFacts – and his White House colleague Kellyanne Conway made things worse on Sunday when she asserted that Spicer was giving voice to “alternative facts.” Derision and mockery rained from the Twitterverse: “The Death Star had no design flaws. Period.”
A semi-contrite Spicer acknowledged Monday that, “knowing what we know now,” he wouldn’t have used bogus figures claiming Metro ridership in Washington was higher for Trump’s inaugural than for Barack Obama’s. He acknowledged that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was not a record. “I didn’t say in person,” he argued, saying he was referring to “total audience,” including TV.
He even seemed prepared to compensate for fleeing without facing questions Saturday. “I’m going to stay out here as long as you want,” he said. And he did, for an hour and 15 minutes.
This is good news, in a sense, because it suggests that the Trump White House is not entirely shameless and that, even in the post-truth America, there is some limit to the liberties that will be taken with the facts.
Spicer also climbed down from a number of the promises Trump made during the campaign. Trump had pledged that on his first day in office he would, among other things, rescind Obama’s orders protecting from deportation those brought here illegally as children; begin work on the border wall; suspend the Syrian refugee program and immigration from areas affected by terrorism; announce plans to withdraw from or renegotiate NAFTA; label China a currency manipulator; and eliminate gun-free zones in schools.
But Spicer on Monday showed no administration interest in deporting the “dreamers” nor in reversing Obama’s executive orders protecting them. He walked away from Trump’s inflammatory pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (“we’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process”). He had nothing to say about changes to refugee policy. He appealed for patience to work with Congress on the border wall and Obamacare.
Politico’s Shane Goldmacher asked Spicer about the broken “Day One” promises: “Why not pursue all those on Day One, as he promised in a contract with the voters?”
Spicer said the Trump administration doesn’t want to “just jam them out in a fire hose.”
Spicer looks like a man who has been drinking from a fire hose. He wore a grim expression before he opened the door fully to the briefing room and flashed a smile for the cameras. He tried a couple of opening jokes about his Saturday antics, but they were met by scant chuckles and groans. He garbled words as he nervously read his opening statement.
Only a fool would think Trump is permanently jettisoning his campaign promises or making peace with the media. But the relatively sheepish and measured Spicer we saw Monday shows that, at least among some in the Trump White House, there is a latent capacity for shame.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.