You could say it was a remarkable, even bizarre, question from a reporter during the Trump administration’s first White House press briefing on Monday. But then, the bizarre is now commonplace. And so, 15 minutes in, on live television carried on every U.S. cable news channel and many others around the globe, Jonathan Karl of ABC News asked White House spokesman Sean Spicer the question that was on the minds of many press corps members.

“Is it your intention to always tell the truth from behind the podium, and will you pledge to never knowingly say something not factual?” he asked.

Less than 48 hours earlier, Mr. Spicer had stormed into the White House briefing room to chastise the press corps for what he called “deliberately false reporting” and to claim, angrily and incorrectly, that Donald Trump’s inauguration had been witnessed by more people “both in person and around the globe” than any other inauguration in history. On Sunday morning, told by Chuck Todd of NBC News that Mr. Spicer’s assertions were simply wrong, White House advisor Kellyanne Conway blithely explained that her colleague was operating from “alternative facts.”

And so, on a day that some were wondering if the relationship between the White House communications department and the reporters who cover it might devolve into a mixed martial arts cage match, Mr. Spicer pledged to stick to the facts.

(And then, he suggested parenthetically, sometimes the facts themselves might be up for debate. In fact, actual facts might not actually matter.)

“I believe we have to be honest with the American people,” Mr. Spicer began, in response to Mr. Karl. “There are certain things we may not fully understand when we come out [here], but our intention is never to lie to you, Jonathan.”

“If we make a mistake, we’ll do our best to correct it,” he said. “But as I mentioned the other day, it is a two-way street. There are many mistakes the media makes all the time. They misreport something, they don’t report something, they get a fact wrong. I don’t think it’s always [right] to turn around and say, they’re intentionally lying. I think we all try to do our best job and do it with a degree of integrity [of our] respective industries.”

Mr. Spicer seemed especially irked by a tweet issued by a White House pool reporter on Friday suggesting that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Though the reporter, Zeke Miller of Time, had quickly corrected the tweet, Mr. Spicer repeatedly hammered away on the incident, using the convenient cudgel as an apparent warning to Mr. Miller’s colleagues, lest they also make a similar mistake.

And though Mr. Miller had apologized for the error, and Mr. Spicer had tweeted, “Apology accepted” on Friday, that was now apparently not enough. “Where was the apology to the President of the United States?” Mr. Spicer bellowed on Monday.

The problem, as Mr. Spicer explained in an apparent bid for empathy, is that Mr. Trump is the Rodney Dangerfield of the White House. (He didn’t use the reference, but he might as well have.) “He’s gone out there and defied the odds over and over and over again, and he keeps getting told what he can’t do, but there’s this narrative that’s out there,” said Mr. Spicer, looking peeved.

“I think over and over again, there’s this constant attempt to undermine his credibility and the movement he represents, and it’s frustrating for not just him, but I think for so many of us who are trying to work to get this message out. We want to have a healthy dialogue. Not just with you but with the American people. Because he’s fighting for jobs, he’s fighting to make this country safer, but when you’re constantly getting told, ‘That can’t be true, we doubt you can do this, this won’t happen,’ and that’s the narrative when you turn on the television every single day? It’s a little frustrating.”

There is no doubt that’s true. It must be frustrating to feel constantly undermined – even if, as many noted in the wake of the press conference, that the turn of events is karmically comical, given Mr. Trump’s four-year birther campaign to undermine his predecessor’s legitimacy.

But the Trump administration also refuses to help itself. If it wants journalists to be able to measure its successes, it needs to set some basic benchmarks and goals. That can be a challenge with a president who has a notoriously cavalier relationship with facts.

Asked during the press conference what the administration believes to be the current unemployment rate – Mr. Trump had claimed on the campaign trail that it might be as high as 42 per cent – Mr. Spicer refused to be pinned down. (Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor put the rate at 4.7 per cent) He explained that his boss was “not focused on statistics, as much as he is whether or not the American people are doing better as a whole.”

“Because for too long, it’s been about stats,” Mr. Spicer said. “It’s been about, What number are we looking at? As opposed to, What face are we looking at?”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jan. 23, 2017 8:00PM EST
Last updated Monday, Jan. 23, 2017 8:02PM EST