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National view: Why does PR maestro Trump tolerate Spicer?

Dick Meyer

One of the most difficult-to-explain idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump as president is how he has allowed Sean Spicer to stay in his job as press secretary. Never has a White House flack served his boss more poorly.

For a man as obsessed with image, marketing, brand and looks as Donald Trump, one would think the choice of a spokesperson would be among his most important personnel decisions. Some Trump-watchers say Trump considers himself his own flack and thinks it makes him look clever to have a bumbler as the official court jester. Maybe. And maybe that's why Trump sticks with a guy who makes him and his administration look ignorant and inept every weekday for about an hour.

Spicy hit a new low this past week. While talking about Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons, he said that even Hitler didn't "sink" to using chemical weapons on his people. Except, as virtually every literate person older than 13 knows, Hitler sent millions of people to die in gas chambers over many years. That was part of something called the Holocaust.

Later in the same press conference where Spicer dazzled the world with his insensitivity and non sequiturs, Spicy was given a chance to dig out of his hole. Instead he doubled down. There's a big difference, Spicer scolded the assembled reporters, between using poison chemicals as weapons shot from planes and just sending Jews and some gypsies to what he called "Holocaust centers" to be executed in assembly-line gas chambers. Duh! Spicer's clear implication was that Assad is worse than Hitler and chemical weapons shot from airplanes are worse than gas chambers, so don't go ragging on the boss for bombing a Syrian airstrip.

(One can't help but wonder what Spicer thinks a "Holocaust center" is. Old German malls that provide mass exterminations after a day of shopping? Bohemian community centers offering gas chambers instead of steam rooms and saunas? If you think these wisecracks are in bad taste, think harder about what the official spokesman of the POTUS said in a formal press conference.)

As a Jew, I was not particularly offended. Many were, and Spicer has been accused of being a Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite, and an insensitive human being. Spicer later apologized for these sins.

But Spicer did not apologize for what I think should have made his remarks offensive and unacceptable to Americans — their sheer stupidity. The spokesman for the leader of the free world barely has a grasp of the most major events in recent history. On civics, history and the basics of the 21st century globe, Sean Spicer comes off as clueless.

Which raises the question: Why does Trump keep him in the job?

The possible answers are tantalizing: Does Trump not know of Spicer's shortcomings? Or does Trump want him in the job anyway? If so, why? Does Trump think it makes him look smarter? Is it a backhanded, secret way for Trump to show his utter contempt of the press and the public?

Numerous journalists and business acquaintances that have spent real face time with Trump say personal appearance is hugely important to him. He wants his people to look the part. Rex Tillerson looks like what an American secretary of state is supposed to look like, so he got the job after one meeting with POTUS-elect. James Mattis and H.R. McMaster look like Central Casting generals, so they got the top national security jobs. Ben Carson looks like public housing because he is black. Nikki Haley looks like the United Nations because she is dark, exotic, female and attractive. Mike Pence looks like the kind of vice president who should be on a trading card as opposed to the runner-up, Newt Gingrich, who looks like a newt.

Sean Spicer? Maybe he looks like a spokesman for Men's Warehouse or Dunder-Mifflin, though he probably doesn't have the ability to master the subject matter required for those positions.

There are, obviously, more serious personnel disasters in Trumpland. Not counting Michael Flynn, I would nominate Tom Price, Rick Perry, Scott Pruitt, Carson, Jeff Sessions, the Kushners and, of course, Steve Bannon. But Trump doesn't care about those jobs and all those policy things as much as he does image, press and brand.

So, Sean Spicer?

Here's a deeper worry. Trump's specialty is branding, marketing and publicity. If he is reckless, cavalier and bungling on those fronts as president, what are the odds he can get anything else right?

Dick Meyer is chief Washington correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC (decodedc.com). He can be reached at dickmeyer.dc@scripps.com

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