WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sean Spicer burst onto the public stage six months ago with a scolding rant against reporters, accusing them of lowballing the size of President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd.
Following a turbulent half-year run as White House press secretary, Spicer is leaving the building with a final burst of drama after rejecting what amounted to a downsizing of his role.
Until he got swept up in Trump’s orbit, Spicer had been a party functionary for the Republican National Committee, well known and respected among Washington political operatives and reporters but with no national profile.
As Trump’s frontman at televised White House news briefings, however, the 45-year-old achieved a certain fame for defending the president at all costs through a variety of crises that have beset Trump’s young presidency.
He became instantly recognizable around the country and an inspiration for social media memes. His live televised briefings drew big audiences for cable TV.
Spicer was lampooned on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Melissa McCarthy playing the combative “Spicey” character, swallowing gum and driving a motorized lectern into actors playing reporters who asked hard questions.
Asked what he thought of the show, Spicer told Fox News in an interview on Friday: “I think that there were parts of it that were funny, but there’s a lot of it that was over the line. It wasn’t funny. It was stupid, or silly, or malicious.”
Over time, however, Trump felt he was not being defended strongly enough by his communications team and that there were not enough people advocating for him on TV, according to a Republican close to the White House.
In a crushing snub, Spicer, a devout Roman Catholic, was kept off the list of White House officials who met Pope Francis when Trump visited the Vatican in May.
With Trump eager to make changes in his communications team, the president began courting Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financial whiz who has been an eloquent defender of Trump in TV interviews.
Scaramucci is a prominent Republican fundraiser who advised Trump during his presidential campaign last year after working first on rival Scott Walker’s campaign until it fizzled.
Trump met Scaramucci on Thursday and talked about making him communications director, and planned a formal job interview and offer on Friday.
Spicer was dubious when told he would continue in the duties of press secretary and communications director with Scaramucci, who is not experienced in the ways of Washington, taking over the ceremonial title, a source close to the White House press operation said.
“This is a joke,” the source said. “Trump wanted Scaramucci on television as a surrogate for the White House and wanted to give him more of a formal title. There was simply no understanding by the president that the communications director title comes with lots of responsibilities, not just going on television.”
When Trump went ahead with the hire on Friday and asked Spicer to stay on, Spicer had had enough, telling the president he was resigning, the source said.
After the announcement was made to the White House communications staff at midmorning, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus huddled with Spicer and Scaramucci privately.
Spicer told Fox News the president did not want him to go and had been “very gracious throughout this process.”
“I just thought it was in the best interest of our communications department, of our press organization to not have too many cooks in the kitchen,” he said.
Trump tweeted late on Friday: “Sean Spicer is a wonderful person who took tremendous abuse from the Fake News Media - but his future is bright!”
Spicer, spotted around the White House complex, was described by colleagues as in a good mood and feeling he had made the right decision.
Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis