Sean Spicer might be among the least trusted public figures in the U.S.
After he lost his job as White House press secretary, all five major TV news networks — including both Fox News and CNN, as well as CBS News, ABC News, and NBC News — declined to hire Spicer as a paid contributor, with network insiders reportedly telling NBC News, Spicer had a “lack of credibility.”
His attempt to rehabilitate his reputation with a September 17 Emmys appearance earned him a massive backlash.
Less than two weeks later, Spicer made another, somewhat less-reported public appearance — as the keynote for the Marcellus Shale Coalition's 2017 Shale Insight conference.
Shale drilling advocates have claimed for years that hydraulic fracturing, the controversial horizontal drilling method known as “fracking,” has never, ever contaminated American underground drinking water supplies (despite an ever-growing mountain of evidence to the contrary).
In Sean Spicer, it seems, the shale industry decided that they've found a friend, someone familiar with “alternative facts.”
The reasons Spicer's credibility faltered likely could be recited readily by many who've followed the news over the past year. It includes a list of gaffes and false claims that dominated this year's headlines worldwide.
Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer notoriously said at a White House press briefing in April, as he compared Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to the Nazi leader who murdered over 6 million people, many of them in gas chambers (Spicer later apologized for that remark).
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” Spicer claimed this January, referring to Trump's inaugural crowds — a statement so notoriously false that Spicer himself later mocked it at the Emmys.
In a post-White House appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Spicer said his job was to “represent the president's voice,” whether he agreed or not — prompting the Washington Post to conclude, “[w]hat Spicer is saying here is that he believes his job was not merely to defend political decisions with which he disagreed but to make false statements, if asked to do so by the president.”
At this year's Shale Insight meeting, Spicer began his remarks with a statement that very few would dispute.
“Before I begin, the one message that I want to make sure that you take away from my comments today, is that while I may not be in the White House anymore, I remain unbelievably confident that this industry has a huge friend in the Oval Office and throughout this administration,” Spicer told the crowd of shale industry executives, to applause.
He described the lessons he learned from his time at the White House.
“The big takeaway for me, going forward, was always make sure that I was prepared,” he told the crowd.
Spicer's accuracy problem, however, persists. In his prepared remarks at Shale Insight, Spicer lost track of the truth repeatedly.
For example, early in his remarks, he touted the Trump administration's economic record by describing impressive-sounding economic growth. “We are seeing quarter after quarter at 3 percent or higher, something that in the budget that was submitted at the beginning of this year was laughed at,” Spicer said. “Everyone said, 'that's just not possible, we don't get three percent growth anymore.'”
Unfortunately, those two sentences were laced with errors.
First of all, at the time Spicer spoke, Trump had only been president during one full quarter — the second quarter of 2017. About 20 percent of the year's first quarter was before Trump's January 20 inauguration and therefore under Obama's watch, while the third quarter wasn't yet over by the time Spicer took the Shale Insight podium, which means economic figures couldn't yet be calculated.
Second quarter 2017 did see economic growth of 3.1 percent (according to revised figures from the Commerce Department) — but growth during 2017's first quarter was just 1.2 percent, or less than half of what Spicer described. And third quarter growth is currently projected to be “below 2.5 percent,” according to Reuters — in part because Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria dealt a sizeable blow to the U.S. economy.
To find quarterly growth of over 3 percent under Obama, one only has to look back as far as 2015 (or 2014 for two consecutive quarters). And finally, Trump's budget set annual GDP goals, not quarterly ones — and as of September 5, Kiplinger was projecting roughly 2.1 percent annual growth for 2017, far short of the more than 3 percent projected by Trump's budget.
And while all those numbers, dates, and details might make eyes glaze over, they matter. Not only because Spicer got them wrong (though official numbers are readily available online), but because they reflect the entire U.S. economy boiled down into a single percentage rate — so a tiny decimal place reflects enormous sums of money.
Discussing natural gas at Shale Insight, Spicer bungled his facts as well. “By Poland buying our natural gas, it's a check on Russia,” Spicer said, echoing Trump's remarks at his appearance with the Polish president. “That's huge. That is a huge foreign policy strategic plus that we have now as a country.”
Politifact recently examined similar claims, finding that the impact of U.S. natural gas exports is relatively limited. While it is true that for the first time in decades, the U.S. was a net exporter of natural gas for several months this year, “a variety of factors are expected to limit how much of a player United States LNG [liquefied natural gas] can eventually become in European markets,” Politifact concluded.
“Even for Poland and Lithuania, the recipients of American shipments this year, the leading LNG suppliers are currently Qatar and Norway,” they found — and Russia will continue to have a major competitive edge because its natural gas doesn't have to be liquefied and can instead reach Poland through pipelines at a far cheaper price.
To be sure, Spicer no longer represents the man in the most powerful office in the country, and these days his comments reflect only his personal views.
During a relatively long question and answer session at Shale Insight, audience questions for the former Republican National Committee chief strategist — and former White House Easter Bunny — were mostly light-hearted rather than probing.
Spicer told stories about “pinch me” moments, like getting to hang out with NFL players as they waited in Spicer's office to meet Trump. He talked about where he gets his news now: unnamed email news services and Breitbart both topped his list. But now that he's out of public office, he's tuning the news in much less, he said. “Finally, I looked at my wife and I said, 'I'm turning it off'” for four or five days, he said, adding that when he was in Washington, he'd over-estimated how much Twitter mattered.
He described a regret that he said still nags at him: failing to respond fast enough when a stranger on the street told him he “almost” looked like Sean Spicer. “What part of me doesn't look like Sean Spicer?” he wished he'd asked the man.
It was a laugh line — which made sense, as at Shale Insight, Spicer was among friends.
Main image: Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer at the 2017 Shale Insight conference. Credit: Sharon Kelly