Josh Earnest, the former White House Press Secretary under President Obama, spoke to three audiences at Florida Southern. One was a group of political science students on the basement floor of the Christoverson Humanities building, and the largest-attended was the official Child of the Sun Distinguished Speaker Series lecture in Annie Pfeiffer Chapel.
The third talk—the second chronologically—was with me, in a small office room on the third floor of Christoverson next to Dean Hollingshead’s office. The setting was calm, and the office was bare except for a few old copies of the Southern and a small selection of fruit and nuts for Earnest.
We sat down on opposite sides of the desk. Earnest took off his jacket and laid it across the back of a seat adjacent to him and crossed his legs. Earnest is tall, but sitting down we saw almost eye to eye. He measures his words carefully—sometimes there were more than 10 seconds between a question I asked him and his response to it—but his words were genuine and honest.
I began by asking him whether the office of Press Secretary has changed since he served in the position, considering that there have been two press secretaries since President Obama was in office. Earnest echoed some of his response in his talk later that evening.
“The biggest difference is…. that President Trump was missing an opportunity that is afforded to every president, and it’s an opportunity that gives them a great advantage in our political system,” Earnest said, “which is a platform for making an argument” that he believes Trump hasn’t taken advantage of.
“What we hear from President Trump are assertions that often turn out not to be true, promises that he can’t really hope to keep: pronouncements that many people find totally offensive, and that’s not really a coherent argument,” Earnest said.
A Change in the Office
Earnest then described what he perceives as a disconnect between Trump and his team. I asked him whether the president’s relationship with social media—with Twitter—affected the office of Press Secretary.
“It’s not uncommon for President Trump to use that Twitter feed to contradict things that people say or to tweet things that make it clear that other people that are on his staff who are supposed to be in the loop are out of the loop,” he said.
It’s important to keep in mind that Earnest served in the Obama White House, meaning that many of his explanations for what’s going on in 2018 are informed and compared to his own experience. This contextualizes his statements but also provides the ethos necessary to an onlooker.
One comparison that Earnest made was to a moment even before he took the job as Press Secretary. He said that President Obama brought him into the Oval Office and said, “I’m not going to watch your briefing every day, but if there’s ever anything you need to know before you walk into the daily briefing, then you need to come here into my office and ask me.”
Earnest perceives that that kind of communication and on-the-same-page-ness isn’t happening in the Trump White House, to the detriment of the abilities of former Press Secretary Sean Spicer and current Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to perform effectively and to handle questions from the press.
Regarding the challenging questions that he received from the press, Earnest said, “Every day I got lots of questions that were intended to undermine our argument… what I tried to do is try to collect information and have a marshall of facts, and present them in a compelling way that what the president was doing was a genuine priority, that it was well thought out, that it was likely to succeed.”
I asked him whether the role of press secretary was like marketing the President’s decisions and policies to the press and the public. Earnest disapproved of that label. “Marketing has that connotation of wanting to make it sound good, and the responsibility that a press secretary has is bigger than that.”
“Journalists have a responsibility to ask probing questions and to be skeptical and to demand accountability and transparency,” he said.
So, I asked, would Earnest be satisfied if someone with his exact ideals and “press secretary-ness” were in the position today, in the Trump Administration? “Well, I would not… I could never work
In my view advocacy is about collecting facts… and able to make a compelling case based on substance and not a slogan.
-Josh earnest, former WH press secretary
in the Trump White House,” he said. Setting aside all of his current personal differences he has with Trump and his beliefs, Earnest said there are two things that would keep him from working there.
The first, Earnest says, is “the President’s willful disregard of truth and facts.”
The second, he described, was similar to his anecdote about the Obama administration earlier in our conversation: that Trump seems to keep his team at such a distance that he would feel unequipped for the job. “That’s not the fault of the press staff,” he said, “that’s the fault of President Trump.”
On the topic of Florida
Our conversation swiveled from the present to the past. Earnest’s talk at Florida Southern marked a return to Florida, not a visit. Earnest was part of Jim Davis’ gubernatorial campaign in 2006. The campaign lost to Charlie Crist.
Crist, who ended up leaving the Republican party, ran as an Independent candidate and eventually joined the Democratic Party. I asked Earnest whether that sort of ideological swing was viable in our current political environment.
“Yes,” Earnest said, “I do think that people can change parties.” He described how disruptive of a political force Trump is, and said that he believes that facilitates party shifts.
He doesn’t, however, foresee the creation of any competitive, new party: “The parties are so entrenched that I think it would be very hard for there to be a national third party, and it’s just a function of the way that our system works.”
Earnest contrasted our politic to that of France, which saw a major shift with the dominance of current president Emmanuel Macron’s self-designed party, which also gained a majority in the legislature, saying “I think that’s as much a function of how different their system is than ours.”
My final question for Earnest was inspired by a question prompted by one of my professors at FSC: does he feel sorry for Sean Spicer?
“No,” he said, almost immediately. “He sought that job, and had a good idea, even if it wasn’t a complete idea, of the kind of challenges of it before he took it.”
He doesn’t pity, either, the pressure he guessed Spicer was under to prove his loyalty on day one to Trump’s claim about inauguration crowd size.
“It was clear that President Trump put him up to it and that he was demonstrating his loyalty and commitment to Trump in a way that was disappointing and embarrassing for pretty much everybody involved.”
There was one moment, though, when he “felt a twinge of sympathy” for Spicer. The day after his claims regarding the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, the New York Times reported “buried 12 or 14 paragraphs into the story” that a White House official said that Trump disapproved of Spicer’s performance.
“The job of press secretary is challenging enough even in the most ideal circumstances, when everybody who’s on the team is rooting for your success, and to see in such a public way at the very beginning that there were some prominent members of the team who were not rooting for his success and were in fact actively trying to undermine him was something that made me feel a twinge of sympathy for him,” he said.
Our time was up. Dean Hollingshead had allowed me 15 minutes, and I felt content getting away with 16 and a half. We shook hands; I left.
There’s something remarkable about looking back on another time. A widening time difference from the Obama administration, in the eyes of many, has offered new perspectives on his time in office, and it’s also revealed much in terms of context and comparison.
Nevertheless, I felt like Earnest was still somewhat in the mindset he was in as press secretary, one that tirelessly speaks in favor of the President he served.
“If there are some people who, despite their own political instincts, was able to hear me out and found that compelling, that means that at least once or twice I did a pretty good job.”