Full Transcript: Sean Spicer on 'The Carlos Watson Show'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he saw the Trump show from the inside.
By Daniel Malloy
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sat for a revealing hour-long interview with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson for a recent episode of The Carlos Watson Show. You can watch the episode here, and find a full transcript of the interview below.
Sean Spicer: Hey, Carlos, are we just going straight through and then you guys cut it, or do you actually pause?
Carlos Watson: We typically go straight through and then cut it. But we can pause. Is it helpful to pause?
Spicer: Oh no no, I’m just asking.
Watson: Would it be helpful to give you a pause?
Spicer: No, no, no, just, I’m great.
Watson: Great. We’re ready? All right. I’m pleased to welcome today to the show a fantastic American dancer and former press secretary and host of Spicer & Co., Sean Spicer. Thank you for joining us today.
Spicer: You bet, Carlos. It’s great to see you.
Watson: Good to see you. Hey, Sean, so for people who don’t know your backstory, where’d you grow up?
Spicer: I grew up in Rhode Island. It’s a small town called Barrington. Although I think most of the towns in Rhode Island are pretty small. And I moved down to the Washington, D.C., area after I graduated from college in 1993.
Watson: Interesting. Were you a political junkie growing up? Like was it a foregone conclusion that we were going to see you in the White House at some point?
Spicer: No, I didn’t know the difference between Republicans and Democrats pretty much until the end of my high school tenure. And then when I went into college, wasn’t probably until the end of my sophomore year where I had an interest in it. And after that point then, yeah, kind of got bit by the bug, if you will. I tell people I started off college as a Japanese language major. In high school, one of my teachers knew that my family had struggled financially. And he said, “Right now,” this was in the ’80s, he said, “if you could learn Japanese language and kind of minor in economics, you’ll actually do really well.” And I thought, “OK, well, how hard can that be?” And I went off to college and apparently Japanese is not an easy language. And after the first semester, the dean asked to see me, and he suggested that I choose a new path, and I took a government course, and that became a passion.
Watson: And how did you end up becoming a conservative Republican? Because Rhode Island is famously known as either kind of liberal or at least Democratic. And even when you guys have had Republicans, they’ve been kind of Republicans in name only. So how did you end up on the Republican side of the aisle?
Spicer: Yeah, I am the Republican in Rhode Island. I think part of it was, I watched my dad. My dad sold boats for a living. And every time that there was a new law passed, it somehow affected his ability to provide for the family. I remember one year that the luxury tax passed and went after the rich, so to speak. Well, guess what? If rich people aren’t buying boats then middle-class people don’t make any money. And my dad would tell me. But he wouldn’t talk about it in terms of government or parties. He’d just say, “This is what’s going on now.” Because we would try to figure out why we can’t go on vacation that year. What was holding back our ability to pay for certain things? And my dad would try to explain it to us about what business was like. And so I think through that, that was the economic and the financial piece of it. And then I think both on the social side, if you will, it was a lot of my faith and my upbringing through my family that guided me into more of the social conservative side of the equation.
Watson: And where were Mom and Dad on the political spectrum? Where they also Republican conservatives as well?
Spicer: I think my parents were pretty hard-core independents. And we never discussed politics, as I said. I mean, it was never Republican Democrat. Most of the politicians on Rhode Island were Democrats. Once in a while, as you pointed out correctly, we would elect a Republican, but it wasn’t like they were some staunch right-winger. And so it was never about politics. It was about how certain policies were impacting our family or how our faith was guiding us. So it was an evolution that kind of grew out of that. And then suddenly one day I said, “Where do I align politically?” And it was like, “OK, here are all the boxes on that side of the aisle.” But my parents never brought up politics. We would eat dinner together every night around the table and just discuss what was going on in the community or in our lives. And I think that evolution for me kind of just grew out of those experiences.
Watson: And Sean, how did you become press secretary? Because that’s one of the most coveted roles. Very few people ever get a chance to kind of sit at the lectern and kind of essentially be the voice of a president for much of the world. How did you end up grabbing that brass ring?
Spicer: So, I mean the CliffsNotes version is this: After I graduated college, I did everything I could to get involved in politics. And I felt like a minor-league ballplayer. I’d go from campaign to campaign, try to get to the next level. I worked on Capitol Hill and kept working my way up the ladder. And then finally I served the last three years of the Bush administration, and I got mobilized in the Navy after that. When I was getting off active duty, my wife and I really wanted to focus on starting a family, but the new chairman of the RNC, I got that name, Reince Priebus, had just been elected. And some mentor friends of mine had said, “Hey, we’d like to connect you with them. You guys might be a good fit. Would you at least talk to him?” I did. And the first cycle … The RNC is supposed to be two years, maybe four. So my wife thought, “OK, this is your dream. This is making it to the major leagues, if you will, of politics.”
Two years became four years. And then finally I said, “Hey, we got another chance to do a presidential election. We’ve made a ton of reforms.” And my wife looked at me and she’s like, “Look, you’re going to regret this if you don’t try to stick around and do it one more time. And then we went through the whole process, I headed up the debate schedule. And Trump ends up winning. And as you know, there weren’t a ton of people hitching their wagon to Trump. I am a party person to the core, and my belief was if our voters and our grassroots activists have chosen this person, then I need to do everything I can to make sure that our nominee wins.
And so I started commuting back and forth to New York and helping out the Trump campaign. We were running lean and mean. And people used to say all the time, “Well, there’s 1,000 people in Brooklyn and you guys have 100 at your headquarters,” comparing us to Hillary. And it was kind of true. And so the election’s over, and frankly, there just weren’t a ton of people, especially at the senior level, that had been committed to helping out. And so we started putting together plans as far as what the offices should look like. And frankly I’m no dummy, I spent years putting org charts together in the military. And so if someone says, “Put an org chart together,” you try to put yourself where you want to be. And I said, “OK, press secretary.” And we started a conversation with then-candidate Trump, and on December 22 he said, “Send out the release.” And that was it.
Watson: Is that right? So did you guys ever have a more detailed, you and the president-elect, conversation? Or literally he made the call one day late December that you were the guy?
Spicer: It pretty much was like that. And we had traveled to some rallies, and on the plane we would have conversations about jobs and the White House, but it was never like an interview, “Sit down, tell me why you want to do this.” I think it had been an ongoing interview, and that dated back through the campaign. The president had seen my quality of work, what I was able to do, my interactions with the media and some of that. And then, like I said, when we finished, there weren’t that many folks at the senior level that the president knew he could trust that had the experience. I was one of the only people that had ever worked both either on Capitol Hill or definitely in the executive branch.
Watson: And what did you make of Donald Trump the first time … and give me the real skinny here, Sean. Don’t give me the PC answer. What did you make of him? First time you meet him, larger-than-life figure. Like what did you really make … What’d you tell your wife, Rebecca?
Spicer: So we’re on a … this was a couple of years before he announced, we were on a donor trip up to New York. I was handling all the media for the chairman. The finance team was going around trying to set up meetings for the chairman to talk to big donors. Trump had given us before. And I asked, “Could I tag along for the meeting? I’d love to meet this guy.” And Ryan said sure. So we walk into this office in Trump Tower. And I had known Trump from television, I had seen him as this real estate mogul and the guy who headed The Apprentice. And so it was literally like meeting a celebrity. And we always joke in Washington that you’ve got LA, we are fascinated with Hollywood, and people in Hollywood are fascinated with politics. And it’s true. I just sat there kind of in awe of this guy that I had seen on The Apprentice over and over again and in other shows. So it was sort of kind of trying to figure out what’s he like as a person.
Watson: And if I had sat with you in late 2015, and there were lots of people thinking about running, from Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio to Scott Walker to you name it. Would you have told me that you thought Donald Trump was qualified to be your nominee, and qualified to be the president?
Spicer: I hate to say that I never worried about qualified. I would say: Could he or did he look like the kind of candidate that had the apparatus to win? Absolutely not. And I don’t think anybody who’s been in politics would tell you otherwise. I mean, look, you mentioned some of those folks. You got Bush. Had done all this fundraising, and had this organization. Ted Cruz put together a data operation. Marco Rubio’s reached out to Hispanics. Scott Walker had done the stuff with blue collar workers.
Trump didn’t have any kind of political pedigree. He didn’t have an organization. And in politics, organization is a lot. When you look back on it, it’s easy to say. But I tell people all the time, imagine somebody said … and I know we’re resuming baseball now. If a team came out and said, “We’re going to win the World Series this year only by bunting,” and you would go, “That’s insane. You cannot win a game, never mind a season, bunting.” I mean, that’s the political equivalent of what Trump did. He got up and said, “I’m not going to raise money. I’m not going to do glad-handing events. I’m just going to do it my way. Hold big events, have rallies, fly in, fly out. Tweet a bunch of times.” You’d say there’s no viable path forward.
Watson: Now, when was the moment when you think Donald Trump was going to win? Not just the nomination, but when did you think he could win the presidency? Or did you actually think he was going to win the general election?
Spicer: I think some time between Iowa and Super Tuesday in that February, we knew that it was real. That all of these tweets … In politics, sometimes people say, “Oh, I see all these yard signs up.” Yard signs don’t mean anything. They don’t translate into votes. It means someone went out and put a bunch of yard signs out. But initially people were like, “Look at how many retweets he’s getting. Look at how many people showed up at a rally.” And if you ever look back through history, you go, “OK, that’s great. But are those people going to get out to vote?”
And sure enough, you started to realize somewhere around that second week, third week of February, they were showing up to vote in numbers that we hadn’t seen. And because of the way it was happening, he was accumulating delegates at a pace that showed that it was going to be tough to catch up, especially with so many people still on the field. That it was going to be really, really impossible for anybody to overcome the lead that he had unless it became a one-on-one race real quick. And no one was looking to get out.
Watson: Interesting. But did you think he was going to win on election night? Because I’ve spoken to more than a few people in his inner circle, and they tell me that very few people, maybe only the candidate himself, actually thought on Election Day that he was going to win. Did you think he was going to win on November , 2016?
Spicer: I thought the path was extremely difficult. But I’ll tell you, as someone who is in campaigns … until you’ve done a campaign, it’s hard to explain this. But you don’t invest six to eight months of your life working for a candidate and then thinking they’re going to lose. I’ve been in campaigns where I’ve gone in eight, nine points down on election night and still thought, “Somehow we’re going to pull this out.” It’s just you’re that passionate about the race.
Did I think he was going to win that night? I swear I thought, “OK, we’re going to pull this out somehow.” And I had done electoral math gymnastics to figure out, “OK, if we pick up the second district of Maine and combine this with this, we can pull out 271.” Did I think he was going to win with 306? Absolutely not. I had a path forward for him. We had a data operation that showed how we could do it, but it was really going to be threading the needle. Personally, I always believed that the candidate that I’m with is somehow going to convince the person because I get that invested emotionally in it. But I think there’s no question that the odds were not in our favor that night.
Watson: What was it like being press secretary? Again, so few people ever get a chance to do that, but you’re one of the few who’s ever had a chance to do that. What was that like?
Spicer: So, I think being press secretary and being Donald Trump’s press secretary are probably two different things. But overall, I think the job is extremely intense. The scrutiny is at a level that I had never seen before on so many levels. And it’s lonely, Carlos. I mean, you don’t have many people that you can talk to. A, because particularly in this case, there were so many leaks. And two, because very few people understand the circumstances that you’re going through. There were just plenty of nights where the only person I was talking to is my wife and God.
Watson: Interesting. What do they not understand? Give people a peek inside of the tent who think they know but don’t know. What do they not understand about what it’s like to be in your shoes, or in a press secretary’s shoes, or in a Donald Trump’s press secretary shoes?
Spicer: Yeah. When you’re someone’s press secretary, no matter whose, you speak for that person. Whether it’s an organization, a company or a political candidate, you’re their spokesperson. You’re not speaking for yourself. But somehow people ascribe all of those qualities to whatever you say. I mean, it’s sort of like looking at a lawyer and saying, “Whatever your case is for your client, that’s who you are.” Your job is to do the best job you can. And sometimes you’re 100 percent on board, sometimes it’s 90 percent. But I’ve been doing this for a long time. The difference is with this Trump White House is that I had been doing this … I’ve probably done 500 television hits, and the closest I ever came to being recognized was in the sweater section of a JoS. A. Bank. It was basically a guy walked up to me and he said, “Hey, you’re that Republican dude.” I mean, that was like my big fame moment. I called my wife and I’m like, “Hey, guess what? I got recognized today!”
And it was changed. I mean, whatever it was … the middle of February, I went out to the Apple Store on the way to church one Saturday night, and I thought I’m going to stop and get my wife an Apple Watch because she had been just carrying the load for our family and been so supportive of everything I had been doing. I walk into the store, and this woman just lights me up, and starts putting my face into an iPhone and saying I’m a horrible person, and dah, dah, dah. By Monday morning, the thing goes viral.
And then two weeks later, I’m in a supermarket … I had sent my wife, whatever. For some reason, I wanted carrots and peas that night as part of our dinner. I said, “I’ll run in,” and she said, “Are you certain you want to do this?” And I said, “What can happen?” Sure I am there in the frozen food section. This woman looks at me and she’s just like, “You know, Sean, dah, dah, dah, dah.” And I’m going, “You know, ma’am, all I want to do is get some peas and carrots. I hope you have a really nice night.”
I think that it’s very difficult to explain to people that … They think they know you. They think they know everything about you, why you do what you do, and what you believe. The job at best is one-dimensional. You see a guy at the podium. There were times … Look, I’ve looked back on my tenure, Carlos. And I go, “Oh my God, I look like an angry leprechaun.” It’s not really who I am, but you get all worked up.
It’s tough. I’m not asking for sympathy, but I don’t think people appreciate the fact that when you can’t walk down the street, you’re going friend or foe. Friend or foe. That’s a very difficult thing, because very few people … If you’re famous, people walk down the street and go, “Oh my gosh, Carlos Watson. I remember you from MSNBC.” And you go, “Wow, great. Thanks a lot.” I think it’s a very difficult thing when you walk down the street and someone goes, “Hey, it’s Carlos Watson.” And you go, “OK. Do you love me, or do you hate me?” And in this world, that’s pretty much how it breaks down.
Watson: Sean, when you think back about it, you know one of the biggest critiques people have is that you didn’t tell the truth. That you had one of the most important lecterns, and whether it was about crowd size or other things … that as smart a guy as you are, you didn’t tell the truth and that you did damage to the Republic. What do you say when people say that to you? And do you feel like, A, that’s true. And then B, you have regret about it?
Spicer: I mean, it hurts. I’ll be honest with ya. I mean, look, I go out every day to do the best job I can and to be as straightforward and honest. There are days as a PR person you’re going out there and, yes, you cherry-pick facts to put the best spin on stuff. Absolutely. That’s what every single person in PR does. That’s what I tried. Did I screw up every once in a while? Absolutely, Carlos. And I did it on a stage that was pretty big.
And so from that standpoint, there were days in which I said: Could I have said that better? Could I [have] had a better tone? Could I have interacted better with someone? Absolutely. I believe in constant reflection both personally and professionally. You look at yourself and you say: Did I just do the best interview with Carlos? Was I as good of a person as I could of? Was I prepared as much as I could? That’s what makes you a better person. That’s what makes you a better professional.
Are there days that I look back and go, “Wow, I wish I had done a variety of things different”? Absolutely. I have tremendous Catholic guilt. When I screw up, I feel bad for the people that I represented or that I’m working with. It was a very difficult day to know that people would say, “Oh, you lied,” because that was never the intention. There were days that it was easier to explain than others, and some days it was just a general screw-up.
Watson: Can I push you on that, Sean? And I push you on it knowing that you’re a sophisticated participant in politics. That you’ve had a benefit that most people don’t have. That you’ve been at lots of different tables and lots of different seats, and you’ve seen different ways that it could be done. I mean, I think what I’ve heard people push back on is they’d say everybody spins. Everybody has to cherry-pick. That’s part of the job. But I think the strongest critique I’ve heard of you is they would say, “Sean, who we know is as spiritual as he is, we feel like he knowingly lied about important things.” Are they right?
Spicer: No. Again, look … and I’m glad to go through any examples, because there’s times I can say, “Did I screw that up? Yes.” But that doesn’t mean you lied. And there’s a big difference between being misinformed, or in many cases, I’d go in and get prepared for a briefing. I’d just go to the National Security Council, or the Counsel’s Office, or the Leg Affairs Office and say, “OK, where does this stand on this?”
And by the time you’re done briefing, something’s changed or someone didn’t give you the full information for a variety of different reasons. Is that an intentional lie? No. I’m going out trying to give the best information I can. Or did facts change sometimes? Absolutely. But I never, ever once went out there and said, “OK, I know that the answer is yes and I’m going to say no.” There are days when I would go out and say, “I don’t have the information on that,” or “I’ll get back to you,” or “I haven’t spoken to the president about that,” or “The President believes the following.”
If I’m asked a question about what does the president believe and I answer the question “the president believes X,” that’s his view. That’s an honest answer. If someone says, “What does Carlos believe?” And I say, “Carlos believes one, two, three, four,” it then goes seven … If that’s what you believe, then my answer is honest. Whether or not the answer that you gave me to espouse was correct is a different question. And I think sometimes people would say, “OK. Well, what you said he said isn’t true.” Now, no press secretary in the entire world is going to get up and say, “Look, my boss wanted me to say A. But I’m going to tell you he’s totally wrong. It’s stupid, and the answer is B.” I mean, your tenure is like eight seconds beyond that, and they march out of the building.
Watson: Now, talk to me a little bit … because I also know you’re a little bit of a history buff too. How has Trump fundamentally in your mind changed the presidency in politics, or has he not? Has he been a bright flash, but not a permanent change to the universe? How do you see Trump? Is he going to be one of those fundamentally transformational presidents and presidencies for good or for bad?
Spicer: How long is the show?
Watson: OK, give me the short version. Is he a transformational president, do you think?
Spicer: In many ways, yes. Especially when it comes to what he’s done on the federal judiciary. Over 200 appointments, two Supreme Court justices. That’s going to transform conservatism for at least a generation. I think the unconventional way that he’s approached the presidency, whether it’s constantly tweeting out everything that he says and believes, his lack of desire to be beholden to everything that’s been done a certain way before and every tradition is certainly transformational. That being said, I don’t think you’re going to see a Republican or a Democrat president, at least in my lifetime, that is anything like this. I think that he is going to stand on his own for a long time. It might be 50, 60 years … maybe longer before we see something again like this.
Watson: Do you think he wins reelection? Not what you want, but what you predict. If you’re a betting man, does he win reelection?
Spicer: Yes. If you really want to know, tell me what … If I can tell you the second week of August what the economy looks like, I can give you a pretty much definitive answer. I think if the economy continues to move upwards … and it’s not a question of what the number is. If unemployment is at 6 or 7 percent … right now we’re at 11. We had 4.8 million jobs created this week on top of a 2.5 million a month before.
If people feel as though the economy is getting better and they feel as though things are moving in the right direction, then he’s OK. If they don’t, if they believe the economy [is] stagnant, if they’re worried about their job, or their wages, or their wife’s job, or their husband’s job, then he’s going to have a big problem. But right now, people make up their mind generally who they’re going to vote for the first week or so of September.
If he can get that feeling going that people feel safe and secure in their own economic sphere, then he’s going to be in good shape. But it’s too soon [to] answer that question. Look, he won the state of Michigan by 10,700 votes. That’s 0.22 of a percentage. You look at … Pennsylvania was 0.44. That’s not a lot of margin of error. You’re playing on a razor’s edge, and you start to say, “OK. Well, a bunch of people lost their job, or don’t think the economy is moving in the right direction.” That wipes out a ton of electoral votes real quick.
Speaker 4: Hold that thought.
Watson: I guess there are breaks.
Spicer: Huh? Oh.
Watson: I said I guess there are breaks. I told you no breaks. So, let me keep going then. Who should Biden choose? Put on your political prognosticator hat. Not who you think he’s going to choose —
Spicer: Yeah, I know.
Watson: But who should he choose?
Spicer: If I were him, I would choose Susan Rice. I think Kamala Harris is extremely attractive as a candidate. She’s qualified, she’s got the background, the experience, and I think the base would get fired up by her. She’d be a great choice. The better choice in my opinion is Susan Rice, and I’ll tell you why. I think that Susan Rice is a blank slate. She’s got tremendous credentials, national security adviser, former ambassador of the U.N. She’s real strong on that, but she doesn’t have the law enforcement baggage that Kamala Harris does as a former attorney general and that she was in California, meaning that it’s harder to attack someone who’s got great credentials but no record.
She would be seen as a plus. She would really charge up African American women, which are the backbone of the Democratic Party. And then obviously, Biden’s got a relationship with her from the White House. That being said, I think that Kamala Harris, her relationship with Biden, her relationship and her familiarity with the Biden family, is also a plus. But either one of those I think would be good choices. I think Susan Rice’s lack of a voting record would be a better choice.
Watson: Who’s the most interesting political figure that you came across during your years in D.C.? And it can be from any party, but who stands out to you?
Spicer: I mean, I think there’s no question Donald Trump is hands down the most interesting.
Watson: Sorry. I meant besides Donald Trump. Who else really grabbed you as a real political junkie. Who stands out to you as someone memorable for whatever reason? Good, bad or otherwise.
Spicer: I’m going to give you a twofold answer. On the Democratic side, I always admired Paul Wellstone from Minnesota. I did because he was an unabashed liberal that was believed in the cause, and he was willing to go out there and say, “Yes, I’m a liberal. Here are the causes.” And I really did admire his principled stances. He wasn’t trying to couch his beliefs in some other way. He was proud of what he believed in, he stood up for it, and he fought for it. And I thought to myself, “OK. He’s genuine. He’s real. He’s authentic, and he’s not trying to play games with what he believes.” I always admired him. I didn’t agree with him, but I admired how he approached the job, and the authenticity they had.
On the right, hands down the person outside of Trump would be Newt Gingrich. I came up in the the ranks. I came to D.C. in 1994. My candidate had run on the Contract with America, and it was like baptism by fire, politically speaking. Watching all this stuff happen at the level of transformation that occurred, the implementation of all of the elements of Contract with America, it really showed grassroots politics … not just after the election, but what they had done prior to that election to really get candidates ready to win, give them the apparatus necessary to effectively put a good campaign together. I admire how Newt really got everyone together both on the campaign side and then on the legislative side.
Watson: Interesting. So, you really like scrappers. You like scrappers, you like wrestlers, you like battlers. Whether it was Newt, or Wellstone, or Trump. You like people who are putting up their dukes, politically speaking.
Spicer: Yeah. I think I like people who stand on principle, whether it’s the right or the left. I mean, Bernie Sanders is the same way. He says what he means. You don’t have [to] agree with him, but the fact of the matter is he’s not backing down. I like that. There’s too much doublespeak, and everything’s got to be couched in words. When you can find someone that you know is going to fight for what they believe in and not back down, it’s refreshing. And there’s so many problems in the country that it’s genuinely good to see the people who actually mean it and aren’t willing to back down.
Watson: Sean, how have you felt about the president’s comments on race? Both prior to his election, the birther stuff, and then the stuff around Charlottesville and other places? Do you feel like what he has said has been fine and appropriate? Do you feel like it’s racist? Do you feel like it’s unhelpful? How do you look at what he’s done on what is obviously a critical American question?
Spicer: It’s a great question because I’ve talked to him a little bit about this. I firmly believe that some of the comments that he makes aren’t helpful in bridging the divide. When you, as a white person, you can never understand some of the challenges that Black people go through, no matter their socioeconomic background. And when you talk to them, you understand some of this. And I think that what the president’s missing is that understanding. And it’s in so many things. It’s not just the record. He’s done a lot of great things for the African American community, whether it’s increasing funding for historically Black universities in college, the second first choice act [First Step Act] that allows people who’ve been incarcerated to come out, the increase in opportunity zones. A lot of these things. But I think what’s missing is the outreach, the sitting down and listening.
It’s not talking to. It’s listening from. And being able to understand that it’s not just about policies, it’s about relating to people in politics. We always say the candidates who, who do you want to have a beer with? And it’s not in [inaudible] be meant to say sit down and have a beer with them, obviously. But it’s that sense of, “Who gets me?” And I think that the president would be better served instead of just saying, “Here’s all the things that I’m doing for this community,” is to maybe sit down and listen more and say, “OK, I understand that no matter your background, these are the challenges that you go through, and this is what could help you move up the economic scale, move up the education scale, opportunities that are available to you.” And so I think that that’s the element that would help a ton.
Watson: Interesting. Because Sean, when I look at it, I have to admit, not just as a Black man, but as someone who’s watched and followed politics as well, I feel like the president is a smart person, I feel like he knows what he’s doing. And I feel like he’s heard the critique enough that if he felt differently, I think about someone like [inaudible] who you worked for, or others, that if he heard the critique and he felt differently, that he would have amended his ways. And the fact that he doesn’t, and the fact that he keeps repeating these kinds of things, I at least receive it as intentional, and that it’s not an accident. Am I wrong? Am I wrong to think that way?
Spicer: I think, look, I’ve been around him a long time, between the campaign and the White House and continue to stay in touch with him a bit. I don’t believe that it’s intentional. I think that in many cases he just thinks he’s right, and so he charges forward. Look, and the thing that I tell people a lot about President Trump is for his entire campaign he was told, “You can’t do this. You can’t say that. You can’t act this way,” by all these so-called experts, and in some cases, including myself. And he would do things and blow through the political norms. And so there are times now, to your point, where he’s told, “You can’t say that, you can’t do that.” And he’s saying, “Well, I’ve been right all along and you’ve been wrong. So don’t tell me what to do now.” And I think fundamentally, he just thinks that the policies that he’s enacted and some of the things that he’s done supersede a lot of that.
Watson: Interesting. So what have you personally made of this conversation we’ve had as a country over the last couple of months around Black Lives Matter and racial reconciliation and fresh thinking? Has that changed any of your thinking, has that changed your heart? Have you been surprised by stuff? Have you learned new things? Or has it been a reaffirmation of the things that you already felt you knew?
Spicer: I mean look, I think that the level of frustration that is felt by that community came boiling over. We’ve been told over and over again. “OK, we got it. Are we going to get justice?” And it’s not. I mean, it’s the equivalent, I feel, of someone getting tapped every 10 seconds. And then at the 50th one, they kind of explode a little, because it’s not because of that 50th tap, it’s the consecutive taps before that just got your blood boiling. That said, I mean, I think that we do need to have a better conversation about what’s going on and these frustrations and the policies that need to be implemented. So for me, it’s been eye-opening in the sense to say, “OK, we can’t keep assuming we know everything that needs to get fixed. We need to do a lot better job listening to what’s going on and how we can be helpful and heal.”
That being said, Carlos, I think it’s been disappointing to see two things. One, the lack of a two-way conversation, right? Meaning that some of the actions that have been going on don’t help heal. So, calling people names, assuming the worst in everybody, looting, burning stuff down, doesn’t help the healing process. It doesn’t bring any back, it doesn’t stop anything from going forward. And I think that it’s not constructive to the conversation. And I’ve seen people get yelled at. I watched a video today where a person was yelling at a Black police officer in New York City calling him Black Judas. And I’m thinking to myself, “I cannot believe that that’s what happening. This individual is out there protecting people, and this is the thanks that he gets?”
And so I feel bad for a lot of the folks involved in this because I think there are bad apples everywhere. I think that we do need to look at police reforms so what happened to George Floyd never happens to a living person again. It was deplorable and disgusting. And every time you watch a video like that, I feel like somehow it’s going to turn out different at the end. You watch it and you go, “My God, please tell me that somehow this changes. There’s no way that somebody could possibly do this to another human being.” But that being said, I think some of the actions that have come of this are just not constructive. And I think that we have started to shout down people who even want to discuss something. People are starting to say, “OK, well, if you don’t agree with this and you don’t do this, then you’re a racist, or you don’t want to fix the problem.” And that’s just fundamentally untrue. There’s good people with good ideas that can help heal this country and bring a different perspective.
And we started to get to this cancel culture where if you don’t agree with everything that I say, then you’re a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, whatever. And I think in some cases that’s just over the top, because we’ve lost the meaning of a lot of these words, because there are racists, there are homophobes, there are sexists. And when we start calling everybody the same thing, it takes away from the people who really are them. And it further gets us away from being able to have a constructive dialogue on what would work, what would prevent certain things from happening again, and what can help lift people up.
Watson: Sean, in the ’60s, one of the things that the former segregationist LBJ did in order to help try and heal and move the conversation forward was actually adopt the language of the young people of the civil rights movement. And you remember that famous speech where he was talking about passing some of the civil rights bills. And he said, “We shall overcome,” which was kind of very poignant. Was Vice President Pence wrong to not say Black Lives Matter? Would that in fact have done exactly what you’re saying? Would that have actually healed and brought the conversation to a better place?
Spicer: I mean, are you talking about at a specific event or just overall?
Watson: Overall. He was asked recently did he believe that Black Lives Matter? And therefore, would he say Black Lives Matter? And he kept not saying it. And do you think that’s a mistake? When you talk about healing and when you talk about creating opportunities for good conversation, should you be saying Black Lives Matter, should the president be saying it, should Vice President Pence be saying it as a recognition for some of the real challenges that exist?
Spicer: Look, I don’t mean to buck the question. I hate telling other people, I’ve had a lot of this described to me. I will tell you that yes, I think it’s helpful. I think it starts the healing by acknowledging the other person. Right? That’s the key in any relationship or attempt to move forward, is understanding the other side. I think acknowledging that helps. Yes. But I don’t want to sit here, Carlos, and start telling other people what to do, because here’s the problem. If it’s not genuine, then it doesn’t help. And so I think to tell you, “OK, everyone should say this.” Maybe he’s got a better way of saying it and he’s got a better path forward. That’s not up to me. I’m responsible for me. You’re responsible for you. Do I think it’s helpful? Sure. Because I think it acknowledges the pain and frustration that so many individuals are going through.
But I think then you can’t just say, “OK, well that’s it.” I think it’s part of a conversation. It’s not just saying the words. Saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t make anyone’s life better. The question is what are we going to do to make sure that we root out racism, that we provide opportunities to lift people out of poverty, to get them a better education, to make sure that police departments are reformed? Those are constructive things that get things done. And we get our head wrapped around the axle of, all you need to do is say it. Actually, to me I think then that undermines moving forward in a way of, it’s not just say the words, it’s what are you going to do?
Watson: Yeah. And that makes sense. But I think most of the thoughtful people I hear aren’t saying, “Only do this or do that.” I think they’re saying, “Both and.” I think they’re saying that until you acknowledge that there’s a problem that something’s important, few of us really galvanize around a solution. And so I think there’s a real hunger to have people acknowledge the issue and acknowledge the problem. And, as you said, to talk about real policy and change in that regard. Sean, talk to me a little bit about your opportunity to do Dancing With the Stars. How did it come about? Were you happy to do it? Were you scared as hell? Were you any good at it? How did that come together?
Spicer: Well, I got kicked out of the sixth grade band because my teacher told me I had the sense of beat of a steamroller. So yeah. I stood at that podium in the White House a bunch of times, and I was never as scared as I was walking down the stairs to Dancing With the Stars in the first episode. I had been asked to do it when I left the White House. I didn’t think it was the right time for a variety of reasons. And also, because I’m a horrible dancer and I have no rhythm, I thought. But we kept having a conversation. One of the executives there is just an amazing woman who had taken an interest in me. And I started to bounce ideas off of her professionally. We continued a conversation. We brought it back up, I guess, almost a year ago now. And I talked to my wife about it and we started to say, “You know what? You only get asked so many times to do certain things.”
This is so far out of my comfort zone. I’ve done all of these other things. I’ve started a consulting firm. I had done the speaking circuit. I’d written a book. And I was like, “You know what? Have some fun in life. Who cares? Laugh at yourself a little. Go do something completely different.” And I live once. Go do something completely crazy, have fun. And here’s the other thing. It’s family television. Some of the programs that I’m on on cable before, it was like a political food fight. You’re not trying to get your kids to watch that, but I can finally do something where I could say, “OK, you guys can actually watch your dad.” That was before I saw the first outfit. I was like, “Maybe you shouldn’t watch.”
Watson: And staying with television. Tell me about what it was like to have Melissa McCarthy play you on Saturday Night Live. Were you excited? Were you angry? Where were you on that?
Spicer: All of the above. I was actually at church when that … I woke up the next morning. We DVR like a million programs. And my wife said, “Hey, did you watch Saturday Night Live last night?” I said, “No, I went to bed like 10 minutes after you.” We were in church and I could hear my personal phone, not my White House phone, just buzzing. And I kept thinking, “OK, this is God going. I only asked for an hour. Are you going to look at it or not?” And I did. I knew it was my personal phone. And we got out of mass, I looked down and I could see all these like texts that say, “Ha ha ha. That was hysterical.” And so I went home, I stood in our kitchen. I watched the thing. And to your question, it was like every emotion at once. I was laughing. And then I was like, “Oh, I’m screwed.” Because if you’re a press secretary and they’re making fun of you on national television and they’re talking about you, and you’re not representing the principal, you’re in a bad place.
And so again, I thought it was funny, somewhat well-deserved after the first week I’d had. But it was not going to be a sustainable thing once that happened. I was like, “All right. So start the clock.”
Watson: Hey, take me inside the White House a little bit. What was it like when the end was near? Did you sense that you were falling out with the president? And did you sense that your time was coming to a close?
Spicer: Yeah. And I mean I’ll just start this by saying, I mean, getting that job, like I didn’t even dream … When people would say, “Was this your dream job?” And in a way it wasn’t. I never thought I could do it. I mean, it’s like saying is your dream job playing in the NBA? I’m 5’6″, so no. I mean there’s no way that’s going to happen. And so the idea that this kid from a working-class family is able to walk into the White House and be 25 feet away from the president of the United States is just a surreal feeling. I mean, I didn’t even do the public tour when I was a kid. So it was weird. And then somewhere around May, I knew that my goose was cooked. I had gotten a resignation letter and I knew I was going to pull it out one day. And I [was] just trying to figure out how much time I could buy and when the right opportunity was.
And the day that it came along, I thought to myself, “This is the right [inaudible]. It’s a good time.” And I also knew, as I said earlier, that I was becoming the story. And once in a while you have to remember that it’s bigger than you. And being in the White House and being in the administration is not a self-fulfilling thing. It’s about serving the country, it’s about serving the administration. And if I was becoming the issue too often, I knew that the right thing to do was to step down. It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, because you’re walking in and saying, “The second that this happens, you can’t undo it.” I tell people it’s almost like breaking up with a girlfriend when you were … like it doesn’t ever get … You don’t get to go, “OK, I was kidding.” Once it’s said, it’s hard to undo. And I knew the second that I said, “I’m doing this,” you can’t unring the bell.
Watson: And what was the conversation? What did the president say?
Spicer: So I walked in and I said, “Mr. President, I know you want a new team. We need some reinforcements. And I think you’re right.” We’d been searching for some senior-level people to come in and help us. And I was part of that search. And I just didn’t agree with the person that they wanted to come in. I think the president, I told the president, “I think you need a clean break, but you cannot have one with me here. I need to step aside and allow you to have a clean break.” He was gracious. He said, “Sean, you’re part of the team. You’ve been with me. You’re part of this team.” And I said, “I appreciate that. Thank you for saying that, but you’ll never have the break that you need if I’m still here, ultimately being the focus of a lot of the critique. And so this is the right thing to do, not just for me, but for your administration, your presidency.” And he finally yielded and said, “OK.”
Watson: Interesting. I mean, Sean, do you feel like you could serve both President Trump and the country? Or do you feel like those were fundamentally two different directives?
Spicer: No, I don’t. That’s your job. I mean, first of all, the president is duly elected. So by that nature you are serving the country by working for people that are duly elected and carrying out all their lawful orders that they have. I mean, that’s the thing in the military. Your job is to execute lawful orders. And so when I was in the White House, my job was to do everything that I could to advance the policies and the views of the president as he saw fit.
Watson: Fair enough. Fair enough. Last question here on the White House and then I want to turn to your book and I want to turn to a little bit of your show. I’ve gotten to know 43 a little bit. I know 42 a little bit, I know 44 a little bit. And obviously President Trump, as the 45th commander in chief, is a very different person. And not making any critique at all, but it has seemed like an incredibly chaotic administration. And at times it’s made me worried for our national security that there’s been so much personnel turnover and so much constant drama. Was that ever a worry that you had, that we were under-prepared for a foreign threat or a pandemic or economic challenge because there was so much chaos in the White House?
Spicer: No, I don’t think so. I mean, first of all, most of the national security staff is permanent. And so there are a lot of career staff around to kind of make sure that you’re within the guardrails. But the president, there’s no question, is disruptive. And I think he was challenging the status quo in a lot of ways. But there’s a big difference between being disruptive and not prepared. And I think in a lot of ways hindsight is 20/20, when you look back on a lot of things, could you have been more prepared? But there’s no question that I think we’re ready to go.
Watson: Tell me a little bit about your book. I mean it probably was a given that you were going to write one, but for folks like me who are political junkies, what’s the most interesting two or three things that you think we would end up taking away from your book?
Spicer: That’s a great question. But I will say, first of all, I actually didn’t think I was going to write one. But then I would go around to events and people would say, “I read the New York Times that you thought this, or you believe this.” And I kept saying to myself, finally, it was like three months after I left, I said if people want to know what I actually think and believe, I might as well write it down because I’m tired of having other people tell me what I believe and what I thought at a certain time. It depends on your angle, to be honest, Carlos, I think that I grew up a very working class kid in Rhode Island. I think it’s neat to see the trajectory for a lot of people when I talk to them about my book, the briefing, they’ll say, “I never realized how you got there or how someone could do that.” I talk about some … the inside the White House. I talk about inside the RNC and campaigns.
So for each person, if you’re a political junkie, there’s parts about what we look at and how we run a campaign that is far different than I think how the media portrays how a campaign is run, and what’s important and what’s not, that would be appealing. And I think there’s a lot of other stuff. I mean, there’s the story itself and some of the behind-the-scenes things in the White House. So it depends kind of on your angle. My next book is called Leading America. And I think part of that is much more about the culture that we live in. And especially as a conservative, how we view the world, and frankly, how this cancel culture is affecting us. Because I think we’re seeing it all too often.
And part of what’s neat about writing a book is that when you put down all these examples, you start to go, wow. You take all these pieces, put them together as a whole, and you realize the magnitude that conservative space in our society right now, whether it’s corporate America, Hollywood, the media, social media platforms, et cetera.
Watson: And as a conservative, how do you think about some of these recent Supreme Court rulings? Are you happy with how the Roberts court is leading America?
Spicer: I think it depends on the decision and the ruling. Some of them, yes. Some of them, no. I thought the school choice decision was excellent. It provides tremendous opportunity for folks. It doesn’t trap them by their ZIP code. So if you’re poor, it doesn’t mean that you’re trapped in a bad school. Some of the other ones, it’s just interesting, the nuance that the court has taken in terms of judicial precedent that they follow. It’s intriguing how they come up with their decisions in terms of whether or not it’s based off precedent, whether it’s new law, and what aspect of the case was the linchpin of how they decided in terms of the majority opinion.
Watson: Interesting, Sean, but I don’t hear you panicked over Roberts siding with the liberals.
Spicer: Well, I mean, I’m not panicked because there’s nothing you can do. I mean, I keep telling people … I’ve been saying on my show that if you’re a conservative, you better understand how important this next term is for the Supreme Court. I mean, that’s why I firmly believe that people need to get out there and vote, not just for the presidency, but for the judicial branch as well, because this president has been very successful in replacing federal judges and two Supreme Court justices. I mean, I think there’s a potential of up to three Supreme Court justices next term. And it depends on who they are, how the balance of the court could swing. But we’ve seen if you’re a conservative and you care about strict constructionists or a strict constructionist, then you better hope that we add another conservative based on some of the stuff that Roberts has done in the last couple of weeks.
Watson: Sean, I know you’re hosting a TV show right now, but where are we going to see you in five years? Years ago, President Kennedy’s press secretary ran for the Senate. Are we going to see you run for office? Where are we going to find you five years, 10 years from now?
Spicer: If I keep doing well, I hope that you keep seeing him at 6:00 on Newsmax. That would be my goal. In all honesty, I’ve loved doing this. I’ve had a blast talking to people and talking about issues every night. It’s fun. You wake up, you think to yourself, “Hey, who would be great to talk about this issue, or what’s a subject that hasn’t gotten covered or you think isn’t getting covered completely, and you get to do it. I love what I’m doing so far. And I hope to God that I get to continue doing it. But I will never ever find my name on any ballot for public office. I think after what I’ve seen, oh gosh, I have a hard time right now seeing why anyone wants to do it, considering how they’re treated and what it takes to get elected.
Watson: All right. We’re going to wrap up with a couple of rapid-fire questions. Come at you quick and fast, would love your immediate reactions. Who’s your favorite sports team?
Spicer: New England Patriots.
Watson: Interesting. And are the Patriots going to do better this year than the Bucs, meaning the Patriots without Tom Brady and the Bucs now with Tom Brady? Who’s going to do better this year, Belichick or Brady?
Spicer: Belichick. Never ever count Bill Belichick out. Ever. We’re looking forward to seeing Cam Newton and that number one on.
Watson: Love that. Your favorite book, that’s not your own?
Spicer: I just read Tilman Fertitta’s book, Shut Up and Listen. It really is a fascinating perspective on how to conduct business. And then I’m almost finished with Dan Crenshaw’s book. I got to tell you, it’s probably one of the most impactful books that I’ve read in a long time. It reminds us what we need to be as humans. It talks about a lot of the problems that we have now in terms of being able to have a constructive conversation. It talks about forgiveness. A lot of the things that we’re lacking right now, Carlos, in terms of being able to respect each other, have disagreements, but not walk away, burning down the house.
Watson: Who scares you?
Spicer: Who scares me? The bogeyman.
Watson: No one besides the bogeyman?
Spicer: I’m sure. Honestly, it’s a great question. I haven’t thought about it much. I don’t generally live in fear, so that’s a good thing, I guess.
Watson: It is a good thing. All right. Your favorite TV show. What’s your favorite TV show?
Spicer: I’m binge-watching Ozark right now, but I mean, Billions, Chicago P.D. I can watch Law & Order all day long. Every time USA does a marathon, I’m like, “Here we go.”
Watson: Oh, I love that. So we just had Maggie Siff on from Billions who plays Wendy Rhoades. Who’s your favorite character on Billions?
Spicer: Actually, she’s phenomenal. She’s probably up there. If not, I think Damian is a phenomenal … knowing his background, having watched him on Homeland, he’s an unbelievable actor, but I love … I’m very intrigued with her as a character.
Watson: Love that. We will send that word to her. And then last couple questions…
Spicer: You better be careful. I’m not sure many folks in Hollywood would be excited at that, so you might want to think twice about that. She might not be too excited.
Watson: Fair enough. Fair enough. Speaking of Hollywood, one of the interesting things about your role is you probably got to meet all sorts of interesting people while you were in the White House and in and around it. Who’s the most interesting, intriguing person you met, whether it was an old celebrity crush or just an intriguing person while you were there?
Spicer: When the Patriots won the Super Bowl and they all got to come. In my office one day, as they were about to go get their picture in the Oval Office, the entire starting lineup, Gronk is sitting in my office eating chicken tenders with my kids. Edelman’s in there. I mean, it was a collective thing. And I pinched myself because as a kid, we had only been able to ever … we went to one game ever. And we sat like in these bleachers that were … wasn’t even like real bleachers. It was a bench at the top of the stadium. That was probably one of my best days ever.
Watson: Last couple questions. Sean Spicer as a teenager, what was he like?
Spicer: Rambunctious, talked too much in class, mischievous, but I was a serial entrepreneur. If you could sell it, I did it. I did everything. My father was very clear: If you want money, you go earn it. And so I figured out every single way to make money. When I went off to school, I went to a school where most of the kids were boarding students. I wrote a letter, a handwritten letter to every parent and said, “Hey, it’s a shame that you’re not going to be able to see your kid during their birthday. If you pay me $50, I’ll deliver a cake to every one of them.” My parents were like, “Wow, that’s actually not a bad little business.” I did whatever it took. I sold greeting cards. I sharpened skis. I mean, you name it, I did it to make money.
Watson: To that point, what have you learned about dreaming fearlessly? I mean, it’s something we talk a lot about on the show, what it takes not just to envision something special for yourself, but actually realize it. What have you learned and what can you share with the younger version of Sean Spicer?
Spicer: I think one, never give up; two, constantly ask for help and look for mentors. I did. When I came to Washington, I took every job I could unpaid. I drove people around in their cars. I made the copies. I used to run down to Union Station and pick up newspapers and bring them when Bob Dole was thinking about running for president, because I was like, “Tell me what you need done. I’ll do it.” And I think reminding myself of if you want to be in the game, you need to do everything that you can to figure out a way in, and then do the best job you can to impress people. Because I get too many calls from people who think that somehow you’re just going to show up and you’re going to get the great job. It takes perseverance. It takes hard work. It takes ingenuity. And you’ve got to remember that. You’re in a competition with a lot of folks. Never give up and never stop trying to find a way in.
Watson: I love that. Finally, Sean how’d you meet your wife?
Spicer: My wife worked for a local news station, the local ABC affiliate here. And I had a friend of mine that worked at the station. And she said to me, “There’s a girl at the station that you should meet.” We all went to this horse race called Gold Cup. It was old school setup. We actually had to talk to each other. And we went down, and we literally clicked from day one. My friend Elizabeth gets full credit for introducing us. But that’s been the story.
Watson: How many years later are we?
Spicer: It’ll be 15 this November. See how quick I knew that? You’ve got to remember key dates, man, key dates. That’s what keeps it real.
Watson: Hey, congratulations. And you know, Sean, as we head out, I really appreciate you being as open as you are and thinking about the … Is that hard for you to be that open? Because again, I know you’ve come in for a lot of criticism, and I could imagine it could do different things to people. Has it been hard for you to remain open, or is that just who you are and we can thank Rhode Island’s salty waters for your openness?
Spicer: It is difficult because you know that no matter what you say, somebody out there is trying to figure out how to twist exactly what you said, to find a snippet, to find an angle to make it look bad. And it makes it very difficult to want to be open because you know that there’s someone out there that’s trying to figure out how to find the negative in what you said, no matter what you meant. And that’s been difficult. You asked me earlier about my intentions. I grew up, you try to be a good person to your neighbor, to your fellow human. There are times when it’s very hurtful. I’m not asking for sympathy here, but when someone thinks that you don’t care or that you don’t have the best intentions. We all screw up. I’ve done it plenty. And when you do that, it hurts to think that someone thought you did it intentionally or with malice. It’s tough to sometimes open up knowing that people aren’t going to use that as an opportunity to get to know you, but to hurt you.
Watson: You know what, Sean, you’re making me remember that I didn’t give you a chance here to say it, if you want to say it. If you don’t, don’t feel like you need to. But for those who wouldn’t expect to hear you say Black Lives Matter, is that something you want to say and share with people here today and talk about why you feel it does?
Spicer: Yeah. I mean, Black Lives Matter. And as I said earlier, and I’ll say it again, I think that we, as people who are white, need to understand that you can never put yourselves in the shoes of a Black person, understand the struggles that they go through every single day. It’s everything from getting a cab hail to wondering what’s going to happen when you get pulled over. And so to acknowledge that helps begin the conversation. And I think that that’s important right now so that we can move forward and bring people up. I think too often we’re pushing people down as opposed to figuring out a way, that how can we figure out to stop the bad and then to lift people up in a positive way going forward.
Watson: I so appreciate you. I appreciate your good energy. I appreciate you coming on today. I wish you all the best with the TV show and with the new book. I have to ask you, because I know you’re as much as a junkie as I am. Let’s look ahead to 2024, who should we be keeping our eye on for the presidential race on both sides of the aisle? Who do you have your eye on?
Spicer: I think on the Republican side right now, I mean, I think the two immediate front-runners in my mind are Mike Pence, the vice president, and Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador. That being said, I mean, I think 17 candidates jumped in, major candidates jumped in last time. I would expect a number that high. I mean, every senator is going to jump in, some former governors. On the other side, I don’t know. I mean, you’ve got a lot of up-and-comers right now, especially the ones that are being vetted by the vice president, but we saw with Barack Obama and Donald Trump that to think four years ahead in politics is a lifetime, and yet no one would have guessed that a state senator in Illinois was going to end up president within six years. And I think no one would have guessed that a reality TV star and real estate mogul was going to end up the Republican nominee. So the one thing you’ve got to remember about politics is that four years is a lifetime.
Watson: Sean, I had not thought about it that way, as much as the junkie as I am. And you are making me wonder, forget about the obvious choices, who are some of the really interesting people out there who might throw their hat in the ring. Sean, promise me you’ll come back again.
Spicer: Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure to get to do this, and love everything you guys are doing at OZY.
Watson: OK. Look forward to seeing you again. And I hope you have a wonderful Fourth of July.
Spicer: You too, Carlos. Thank you.
- Daniel Malloy