Sean Spicer speaks at UC Berkeley, looks back on time as press secretary

A person in a blue blazer speaks in front of a crowd.
Samuel Albillo/Staff

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When Sean Spicer walked up to the lectern in front of a crowded Evans Hall lecture room, he was met with a round of applause that took him aback: “That was not the introduction I was expecting, but I appreciate it.”

The former White House press secretary, who served as the mouthpiece for the Trump administration, gave a talk on media bias Wednesday evening. The event was hosted by the student organization Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR.

According to BCR President Matt Ronnau, nearly 800 students signed up to attend Spicer’s talk, only a fraction of which made it into the medium-sized room. Surprised by the number of conservative audience members in the lecture hall, Spicer fielded questions.

Spicer portrayed the Trump administration as focused on policy goals, saying he had to play defense against members of the press with “a liberal bias,” which he characterized as being fixated on daily controversies.

“When you wake up every day to somebody telling you, ‘You can’t do this, you’re going to fall short on that,’ everything is negative. At some point, you push back a little bit,” Spicer said during the talk, reflecting on his first couple days as press secretary. “It’s important to understand that was the mentality of the press corps towards us. To some extent, it has grown even more.”

Spicer’s visit marked one of the most prominent conservative speaking events at UC Berkeley since Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro came to campus in 2017. Thereafter, UC Berkeley settled a lawsuit with BCR and another conservative group, slightly changing the requirements for some speaking events on campus.

“Coming here, I got a few comments from people who knew where I was heading,” Spicer said, anticipating pushback while on campus. “I couldn’t be more pleased by the dialogue.”

Spicer recounted his trajectory into the Trump campaign and, later, the administration — from which he resigned in July 2017, with current press secretary Sarah Sanders replacing him. Pulling the curtain back on a career climbing the ranks of the Republican Party, Spicer often reached for sports metaphors to illustrate the draw of working on a campaign.

Speaking to students aspiring to become conservative political operatives themselves, Spicer explained the appeal of political work. For a young campaign aide, politics “became like a sport: you know whether you won or lost.” Beginning a “minor league career in politics,” Spicer learned how to push stories.

Ernesto Casillas, a campus freshman, was not able to get into Spicer’s talk because the room had reached its maximum capacity. As a self-described progressive who disagrees with Trump’s agenda and conduct, Casillas wanted to hear from someone who was so close to the president.

“I want to be out of this bubble that we’re usually in — especially here at UC Berkeley,” Casillas said. “I want to be in a position where I’m around people that don’t necessarily agree with everything I think and be there with someone who was at the forefront of everything I disagree with.”

One of the most gratifying parts of his stint as press secretary was “democratizing” the press conference, as Spicer put it. Instead of following convention and giving priority to large, national publications, Spicer recalled giving greater attention to small radio stations and websites.

Casillas recalls a more dismissive press secretary — not so much offering a more equitable platform to smaller publications so much as shutting out “people asking tough questions that may have pressed him a little more than he would’ve liked.”

One audience member wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat came to the talk anticipating tension across political lines.

“I wanted to don my gear, and I was thinking I was going to go in, and it was going to be chaos,” said Max Guglielmelli, a veteran whose expectation of the talk was informed by riots incited after BCR invited Yiannopoulos to campus in 2017. “Now I feel awesome, and you’ll never learn these things unless you go out and do it and question.”

Contact Brandon Yung at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.