The reports of Sean Spicer's demise have been greatly exaggerated, the White House said on Thursday.
“Oh my god, for the billionth time no,” an administration official told BuzzFeed News when asked about the swirling reports that President Trump was sounding out aides about replacing the controversial press secretary. Spicer, one of the most recognizable figures in the Trump administration, is currently on Naval reserve duty during one of the most tumultuous news cycles yet of the young administration.
The official noted that Spicer is finishing up 20 years with the Navy, is set to retire soon, and has been incredibly busy over the last six months. If Spicer had foregone Navy duty because of the stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey, then the story would have been that Spicer skipped military duty, the official argued. However, White House officials told CNN that Tuesday's handling of the Comey news was "an embarrassment" and "a disaster."
A source close to Spicer said that the leave had indeed been long-planned and scheduled for what was ostensibly going to be a slow week. After the Comey news broke on Tuesday night, Spicer asked Trump if it was still all right for him to do his reserve duty and Trump gave him the OK. The source said Spicer returned to the White House Wednesday night, and likely will again on Thursday.
But other sources tell BuzzFeed News that Spicer has drawn Trump's ire, and that the president is sounding out aides and friends about replacing him. Aides are making calls to prospective candidates who may be interested in joining the communications team if there is a major shake-up of roles.
"Nothing is decided, but the president has really turned his opinion on Sean," one official told a prospective candidate for the administration, the candidate said. At issue is the fact that Trump saw the right-wing media attacking Democrats and defending him on the Comey firing, but didn't feel that his own staff was stepping up in the same way. After the White House on Tuesday said there would be nothing more from them on the firing, Spicer, Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway rushed onto cable networks to defend Trump's decision.
Another source said the president is speaking to advisers not just about the idea of replacing Spicer and who would be good for the role, but also about the job Sarah Huckabee Sanders has done in her turns at the podium, where she has seemed relaxed, smiling, and drawing positive reviews from reporters in the briefing room and on Twitter, despite still being criticized for misrepresenting the tick tock of events regarding the Comey firing.
Both Spicer and Sanders in recent days have said that Trump was acting on the recommendations of the attorney general and deputy attorney general when he fired Comey, but in an interview with Lester Holt of NBC News, Trump said he had already made the decision to fire the FBI director before the recommendations came in.
Spicer did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, Trump was pleased with Sanders' performances, sources said, with one remarking that she might be considered to replace Spicer if the president makes that call, but another saying he likes her more as a number two. Still, the famously TV-conscious president has been impressed with Spicer's ability to draw high ratings for the historically mundane ritual that is the White House briefing.
“Every time people write this story they’re always wrong and people writing today are wrong,” a White House official said of Spicer’s job security.
But Spicer may find that even planned time off is tough to take with a trigger-happy president stalking the White House grounds. The fickle nature of the job was evident in the briefing room Wednesday after Sanders' high-stakes post-Comey briefing went well.
“A new press secretary was born today,” a White House correspondent remarked loudly, walking out of the briefing room.
Kate Nocera contributed reporting.