Jonathan Karl to Sean Spicer: ‘Is It Your Intention to Always Tell the Truth?’

A question that resolves nothing.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer held his first Trump White House press briefing today, but it was not his first appearance in front of the press since President Trump took office. That would have been Saturday when Spicer, flanked on either side by visual aides depicting the Trump inauguration, berated the press while spouting incorrect numbers on WMATA ridership for this inauguration, and inaugurations past.

On Sunday, ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl went on This Week to discuss that statement, as Spicer would come to call it at today’s briefing. Karl told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, “In his very first appearance in the briefing room, Sean Spicer went in and he uttered at least three things that were demonstrably false.” As for what’s a journalist to do, Karl continued, “We need to be careful as reporters and as journalists not to take the bait and not to get into an endless discussion about issues that are trivial. How many people were there, the crowd size–– were just not important.”

With the issue still on his (and so many others’) mind, Karl’s first question at the presser was posed, somewhat demurely, as one “about the nature of [Spicer’s] job.” Karl asked Spicer, “Is it your intention to always tell the truth from that podium? Will you pledge never to knowingly say something that is not factual?”

“It is,” replied Spicer, before providing a lengthy response:

It’s an honor to do this, and yes, I believe that we have to be honest with the American people. I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may miss–we may not fully understand when we come out, but our intention is never to lie to you, Jonathan. Our job is to make sure that sometimes–any you’re in the same boat–there are times when you guys tweet something out, or write a story, and you publish a correction. That doesn’t mean you intentionally were trying to deceive readers or the American people, does it?

And I think we should be afforded the same opportunity. There are times when we believe something to be true or we get something from an agency, or we act in haste because the information available wasn’t complete, but our desire to communicate with the American people or make sure that you have the most complete story at the time. And so, we do it. But again, I think that when you look net net, we’re going to do our best every time you can. I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts that I know, and if we make a mistake, I’ll do our best to correct it.

As I mentioned the other day, it’s a two way street. There are many mistakes the media makes all the time. They misreport something, they don’t report something, they get a fact wrong. I don’t think that’s always to turn around and say, ok, you were intentionally lying. I think we all go try to do our best job and do it with a degree of integrity in our respective industries.

The value of the question would be not in Spicer’s carefully worded remarks, but in the follow-up, and Karl had it, asking Spicer: “Do you have any corrections that you would like to make or clarifications on what you said on Saturday?”

“Sure. Ask away, Jonathan,” replied Spicer.

“For instance,” said Karl, “I don’t want to get into–re-litigate the whole issue, but like, just take one: the issue of metro ridership. You made a statement about…”

“We did,” said Spicer, cutting short Karl’s question. “And at the time, the information that I was provided by the inaugural committee came from an outside agency that we reported on. And I think, knowing what we know now, we can tell that WMATA’s numbers are different, but we were trying to provide numbers that we have been provided. That wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air.”

But Karl’s next follow-up (“And do you stand by your statement that that was the most-watched inaugural address”) led to the exact situation Karl said on Sunday journalists should try to avoid, i.e. the “endless discussion” on trivia, as Spicer proceeded to list the arithmetic–TV ratings+streaming+YouTube+Facebook that made the “most-watched inaugural” statement true.

Other than the useful distractions from policy discussions and more impactful issues the hyperfocus on minutia like numbers provides, it also keeps attention rooted in a present divorced from history. Spicer’s pushback relied on a “two-way street” argument calling out the press for recent foibles, notably Time reporter Zeke Miller incorrectly tweeting that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office, something that Miller subsequently corrected and apologized for at least five times in follow-up tweets.

Spicer, by pointing this out, was framing it as a both-sides, everybody makes mistakes world in which the incorrect statements in Spicer’s Saturday statement were equal to Miller’s false assertion about the bust. But the basis on which Karl’s question was formed relates not just to Spicer’s unusual statement Saturday, but were informed by Donald Trump‘s long and deep history of falsehoods before, during and after the campaign, as well as by administration figures who introduce phrases like “alternate facts” into the vernacular.

If you want to go tit-for-tat with tweets Trump never corrected there’s his false assertion that millions of people voted illegally in the last election. But the point is not to engage in a back-and-forth, endlessly distracting debate on the last few days in tweet history, but to remember, and to offer the context of what preceded it, the context upon which the need for Karl to publicly establish trustworthiness with Spicer was established in the first place.