In the end, it wasn't the raging mockery of Melissa McCarthy that drove Sean Spicer from his job at the White House. Nor was it embarrassment at all too obviously lying to the press on TV. It was being sidelined and being expected to suck it up.
Sean Spicer didn't lie enough and do it with enough gusto on TV. That's the gist. That's why he was sidelined. He became an eyesore to the TV-obsessed Donald Trump and has been replaced with eye candy.
Friday's resignation by Spicer as White House press secretary unfolded in the kind of chaos that defines the Trump administration. The optics were awful. Spicer, still admired by some in the Washington press corps for his dedication and guts, and for being a blindly loyal soldier, had been disrespected by, apparently, a decision by Donald Trump to install financier Anthony Scaramucci as his top on-air spokesperson and defender. According to numerous reports on CNN and Fox News, Spicer had been expected to stay on in his job but allow Scaramucci to handle televised White House press briefings and other TV duties.
It's as plain as a poke in your eye that Donald Trump's only barometer for measuring the success, such as it is, of his presidency is watching cable news. His judgment on those sent out to explain and defend his actions is brutal. Telling the truth has nothing to do with it. Skill at evasion means nothing. It comes down to skill at denying what's obviously true, attacking the media and blaming Democrats. A dollop of Trump-worship helps to inordinately impress the President.
Sean Spicer did that. But not with enough vigour and poise. There is something profoundly pathetic about that. And about Spicer's departure too – he was happy to lie about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration, or almost anything else, but he was offended by the idea of reporting to some Wall Street guy who has the ear and confidence of the Trump family and who has the TV demeanour of a smooth and cheery version of the Wolf of Wall Street.
Televised White House press briefings under Spicer were must-see TV. Mainly for his testiness and the surreal level of sourness, something that Melissa McCarthy exploited in her satirical portrayals on Saturday Night Live. As soon as those televised briefings stopped, it should have been obvious that Spicer's days were numbered.
Friday afternoon's first televised briefing with Scaramucci speaking from the podium was only must-see TV for those who make a fetish of Trump-worship. Displaying all the showy cockiness of a hedge-fund billionaire, Scaramucci boasted about his achievements and education and expressed an admiration for Trump that transcends honesty and becomes eye-roll-inducing bombast. There was some gibberish – "The President has good karma" and "You can tell from my body language I'm not gonna lie." Also something about eating an elephant that must, one assumes, make sense in Wall Street boardrooms but not in the world outside.
Scaramucci, whose main communications credentials are a stint hosting a business show on the Fox Business Channel, complained about having to separate himself from his assets while serving the President. He's smooth in the language of businessman cant; his worship of Trump had an overcaffeinated quality. This guy's good, but he has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and seemed merely a breath away from referring to the U.S. President as "Supreme Leader." If Spicer became a beleaguered Trump defender, Scaramucci started as an oleaginous lick-spittle whose repetitive announcement that he loves the President was entertaining in the way that interminable declarations of love by a scoundrel on reality-TV dating shows make some viewers want to take a shower.
The key to grasping what Scaramucci is doing at the podium came, eventually, when he was asked about Trump's relationship with the truth. Asked about Trump's solidly debunked claim that millions of illegal votes were cast in last year's election, the new White House communications director replied, "If the President says it, well, ah, there's probably some level of truth." Spicer semi-lied with a peppery semi-conviction and this guy supports untruths with smooth aplomb.
Coverage on the all-news cable channels – what matters to Trump, personally – unfolded by rote. CNN took the view that Spicer's departure illuminated the chaos at the White House. Fox News was anxious to emphasize a narrative that the event was mere inside-the-palace intrigue that doesn't interest most Americans, who are more interested in Trump's policies and his presidency's achievements.
The latter narrative was an outright lie. Spicer was a ratings giant, a TV star, and his fate matters a lot to people who consume a lot of TV. This was no small shift or minor staff change. It was about telling lies on TV.
But here's one truth – the world awaits the return of Saturday Night Live with even more relish than before.