The White House’s muscular response Thursday to President Donald Trump’s personal broadside on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski brought into public view a West Wing that feels constantly under siege.
The 45th chief executive’s domestic agenda is stalled. White House policy rollouts typically feature little policy. But at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the president and his aides appear to spend a considerable amount of time analyzing how his presidency and his bombastic tweets are portrayed by television networks, newspapers and online publications.
During a combative on-camera daily briefing Thursday, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president, hours after he referred to Brzezinski and her “Morning Joe” co-host (and fiance) Joe Scarborough as “low I.Q.” and “psycho” respectively — he then alleged that he once denied them a meeting because she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”
I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2017
...to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2017
An emotional Huckabee Sanders essentially described Trump and his team as mad as hell about what they perceive as being “attacked” by the media. And she signaled the Trump White House isn’t going to take it anymore.
She complained that Trump “has been attacked mercilessly” by news outlets, including Brzezinski and Scarborough’s show. Huckabee Sanders ticked off a list of derogatory things the hosts have said about Trump, including that he is “mentally ill” and has a “personality disorder.”
Trump told the Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference in Washington earlier this month that “we are under siege.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, along with Sanders, have complained about how the media has covered the president almost on a daily basis.
Spicer, as he did on May 12, often refers to the Russia scandal hanging over Trump’s presidency as a “false narrative that we continue to fight every day,” contending that it has been “debunked by intelligence individuals [and] members of Congress.”
But that under-siege mentality has been present in the West Wing since Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20.
“There’s this constant theme to undercut the enormous support he has,” Spicer said on Jan. 23, referring to Trump. He complained that the media unfairly scrutinizes and questions everything the president does and says.
“And it’s unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough. You can’t win,” Spicer said that day. “I’ve never seen it like this. The default narrative is always negative, and it’s demoralizing. … When we’re right, say we’re right. When we’re wrong, say we’re wrong.”
“But it’s not always wrong and negative,” he added.
Fighting fire with fire
Huckabee Sanders struck a similar tone Thursday, but she also let reporters know the White House — and Trump — are ready to punch back.
Just under 160 days since Spicer’s “demoralizing” remark, the No. 2 White House press secretary came out swinging. When the president is “hit,” she said, “he’s going to hit back.”
“He fights fire with fire,” Huckabee Sanders said.
Huckabee Sanders, noting that she has also been criticized sharply on the MSNBC morning show, told reporters they cannot expect the president to “be hit day after day … and do nothing” in response.
The under-siege White House appears to believe Trump has a mandate to fire off tweets attacking media personalities like he did Thursday morning.
For instance, Huckabee Sanders said the American people “knew what they were getting” when they put Trump in the White House. In short, voters elected “a fighter,” she said defiantly.
As they often do, Trump’s Twitter attack on the “Morning Joe” hosts stepped on the White House’s push for a Senate health care bill and drowned out its latest theme of the week, this time energy policy. Previous Trump tweets and statements have had the same effect during the White House’s self-described “infrastructure week” and “workforce development week.”
White House aides do not hide their annoyance that reporters write and talk much more about the president’s tweets and the Russia scandal than his first five-plus months in office or what he has done as chief executive.
So much so that they have been keeping track of the coverage of the 45th president — which is not surprising, given that television screens across the West Wing are typically set on quad-screen mode, tuned to four cable news networks at a time. As reporters chat with Trump aides, they continually glance at the screens to keep up with the coverage.
Huckabee Sanders used that very data during Thursday’s briefing, revealing the extent of the White House’s feelings toward and relationship with the media. She said nightly newscasts over an unspecified month spent 353 minutes “attacking” Trump and “pushing a false agenda” on the Russia matter.
She, like the president, appeared to have reached something of a breaking point by Thursday. She noted that Trump routinely fires off tweets about his domestic agenda and other presidential accomplishments.
“But that’s not being talked about, that’s not being asked about,” said Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and a political observer for most of her life. “Three hundred and fifty-three minutes,” she said near the end of the fiery Q&A, “the numbers just don’t lie.”
As she closed the briefing and exited the room, CNN’s Jim Acosta fired one last question, asking her if Trump will apologize to Brzezinski and Scarborough. There was no response.
But her silence was answer enough: not a chance.