The FRONTLINE Interviews: Trump’s Road to the White House

Sean Spicer

White House press secretary

Sean Spicer was named White House press secretary for Donald Trump in December 2016. He previously served as a chief strategist for the Republican National Committee.

During the presidential campaign, Spicer watched from RNC headquarters as battle lines emerged within the GOP over Trump's candidacy. As he says in the following interview, "this cycle was really unique." In the face of efforts such as the "Never Trump" movement, it fell to Spicer and other RNC officials to rally Republican candidates in down-ballot races behind Trump.

"What we tried to do was to make sure that people understood the dynamic that was at play," says Spicer. "We needed the strongest possible top of the ticket. No matter where you stood, if you were the most fervent Donald Trump supporter or a big hater, if you wanted Republicans elected up and down the ballot, you needed the most vibrant top of the ticket."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 8, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's talk about Mr. Trump as the unique candidate that he is. Here is a guy that sort of didn't go by any of the rules.

Right.

He used media in a different way. He didn't care for the polls that much. He didn't spend the money that the people were expecting [him] to spend. What was unique about him? And why did it work?

I mean, Donald Trump is the unicorn of political candidates. You're never going to see anybody like this again ... He is somebody that defied every political rule that existed ... in a way that nobody has ever done before.

Things happened, like the "Never Trump" movement. What is the way you guys dealt with that? Was the fact that the establishment in Washington had a problem with Mr. Trump difficult to deal with? And what was the role that you and [former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince] Priebus were finding yourself in?

So the role of the RNC, and we've been talking about this since Reince became chairman of the RNC almost six years ago, was to let the voters choose a nominee, and then fully support that nominee, and give them the resources necessary to win. And I think there was a lot of people who believed that the RNC was favoring a candidate, or trying to hurt another candidate. And I think it took a while for people to realize, on various campaigns, that we were true to our word, that what Reince Priebus had done was invest about $250 million dollars in a robust data program that had never been seen before in a permanent ground game.

And so our job was to be neutral through the primary, and then be as supportive as we could be once we had that nominee. And that's what we did. Leading to Indiana, we had been plighted, as fair as you could. And once Trump was clearly going to secure that nomination, we did everything we could to make sure that his team was surrounded with the infrastructure and resources needed to win.

Mitt Romney comes on in March [with a speech against Trump]. You guys are, in June, Priebus and I assume you, are working to wrestle back the GOP to support Trump, knowing sort of the direction, I guess, of where things were going. Talk a little bit about the division, what it says about the GOP at that point.

This cycle was really unique. We had well over a few hundred people actually running for president, but 17 of whom sort of at the premiere level. There were a lot of people that were invested in one particular candidate or another, somebody that they had worked for for a long time, or donated to or help elect. And so there were a lot of hurt feelings among the people that ran.

And then there were other people that particularly just had it out for Trump. And I think our job was to really start to make the case for the party writ large, and it remains true today, that you cannot have a successful bottom of the ticket without a successful top of the ticket. It just never works. The math doesn't equate to allow you to win at the lower level and not have a robust top of the ticket.

And what we tried to do was to make sure that people understood the dynamic that was at play. We needed the strongest possible top of the ticket. No matter where you stood, if you were the most fervent Donald Trump supporter or a big hater, if you wanted Republicans elected up and down the ballot, you needed the most vibrant top of the ticket.

Donald Trump is the unicorn of political candidates. You’re never going to see anybody like this again … He is somebody that defied every political rule that existed.”

The Democrats and the media and a lot of people just believed that the campaign that Trump was running was an amateur campaign. But in fact, a lot has now come out about exactly how savvy they were -- and also, they happened to win. How did everybody get it wrong about what the campaign was doing?

I think that the plain and simple fact is that this campaign defied conventional wisdom. It defied political conventional wisdom. People thought you were supposed to do things a certain way, with a certain amount of people. And we ran the most effective and efficient campaign in modern history. There were more people in some governors' races that were on this presidential race.

And people thought that because the RNC was leading the ground game, that you couldn't possibly do that. And they failed to recognize that a door knock is a door knock. A dollar spent, it's about the net dollar. It's about the return on investment. It's about the most robust data program. And because it wasn't being run the way that it had been run in the past, therefore the political class said it was not going to work. The media refused to, no matter how many briefings we had, they would say, "Well, it's never been done like this before. Therefore, it can't work."

And the fact of the matter was, nobody wanted to give this model a chance. And that's disappointing. We did it better and more efficient than ever before. If you look back at one point during the campaign, someone came up to Trump Tower to do an interview. And they said, "How many people are upstairs?" We said, "120-150 people." They said, "Would it shock you to know that there's almost 1,000 in Brooklyn alone?" And I said, "No."

But the fact is, too many folks in the media believed that if it wasn't done the way that the Democrats were doing it, that it couldn't work.

Election night, where were you? What was it like?

Ironically, we were a few feet from where we sit today. There's a small room over there. We were huddled in what's basically a large closet watching returns come in here on the fifth floor of Trump Tower. And as one of the top political folks, Bill Stepien was watching the numbers come in, and we would look at different counties, where we performed when we were supposed to, Mr. Trump called and said, "Hey, I'm on the 14th floor." We said, "We will move on up now that we know that that's where you're going to be."

We moved all the folks up there and sat and watched the results come in on the TVs that are on the 14th floor in what's known as the war room up there. And then the political team kind of moved to an alcove and kept, you know, looking at where we were doing well as results came in, and where we were overperforming and underperforming. And as counties that we were looking at in Michigan and Wisconsin in particular, were showing that counties that went for Obama 52-48, 53-47, were coming in for Trump, 54-46, 53-47, we started to realize, "Holy smokes ... This isn't just going to happen, it's going to happen bigger than anyone's imagination could have guessed.

Before that, though, there were the exit polls.

I think after the last few cycles, exit polls have really lost a lot of credibility. And as more people vote early, the sample size that you're getting of Election Day voters isn't necessarily as reliable as it could be. But the fact of the matter is ... the RNC data modeled 198 million voters. Every single person who was registered to vote, we had a voter score on them. We knew their likelihood to vote and their likelihood to vote for Donald Trump.

And so we tracked all that. We knew where we were. We felt confident in our numbers going into election night. We called Michigan. We said we were going to win Michigan by 0.2. It came in just about that. Within most cases, we called the states within a couple of percentages, in terms of overall turnout. We knew who our voters were, where they were and what we had to do to turn them out.

When did you know for sure you had won? And who told Trump? And where were you?

Mr. Trump said he was going to over to the Hilton just after about 1 a.m. John Podesta had just come out and said that it was going to be too close to call. We started to walk over to the Hilton, which is just a few blocks from here, expecting Mr. Trump to make a couple comments about how he was doing well. That's just what I assumed he would say.

And when he took the stage, and we watched him walk down that stairwell, as he came around the corner in the ballroom of the Hilton, and he opened with saying, "I just received a call from Secretary Clinton," it was like disbelief. We thought we were going to win, we knew we were going to win, but when he said it, it became real.

Trump is a very different candidate. And a lot of people say this is the first independent we've ever elected as president. He's not the normal Republican. He's not a Democrat. Also, a lot of people say that the party is modeled after the head of the party, who's the president. So my big question for you is, what is the new GOP?

Well look. We have a platform. That's what a party guides itself by. No candidate's ever 100 percent, whether you're talking about a president or the guy running for dog catcher or state legislature. You know, the party guides where the party as a whole is going or believes. And it gets updated every four years by the delegates that get elected to the convention. Generally, those delegates are people that are supportive of the nominee or the incumbent.

So I think the platform that we passed this year is fairly consistent with platforms that we've passed in the past. But it had a lot of Donald Trump nuances to it, on areas like trade. But again ... I think part of what Donald Trump speaks to is where the American voter is. He brought in the Republican Party, so he does speak for the party. It's just now a bigger, broader party than it as in the past. He got more votes than any Republican has gotten in decades.

You can argue that it wasn't more of where the party was a few years back. But his election has broadened the Republican Party. And so broadening it has really brought a lot of issues to light that maybe weren't getting the attention that they had in the past couple cycles.

When you look back at the last few years, there was a divide within the Republican Party. When the Tea Party came in, and then the Freedom Caucus started up, there were disagreements with the leadership of the House. And [Former Speaker of the House John] Boehner disappears, and [Former House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor is defeated. So there was a kind of a divide. What does the Trump presidency do to this new, as you say, bigger Republican Party?

When you're in the wilderness for a while, and you don't have the White House, which we haven't had the last eight years, that's when I think there's a lot of consternation. And it happens in both parties. You remember when the Democrats had been out of office, you saw stuff like Code Pink and Occupy Wall Street. And Joe Lieberman had been the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic party, lost his own primary, and had to run as an independent to get reelected. So it happens when you lose the White House. The parties have this natural churn that occurs. It happened with us this time. It'll happen with them, I believe. You're going to see a fight between the Bernie Sanders, Socialist wing of the Democratic party and sort of what's left of mainstream Democrats.

But the interesting thing with our party, is that it is growing, it is becoming bigger. And I think the biggest thing that helps is success. What happened a lot in the past with the Republican Party is that we elected folks to go to Washington. And frankly, the grassroots said, "Where are the results? Where is the smaller government? Where are the conservative principles on the fiscal and on the social front?"

I think what Donald Trump is going to be able to do, whether it's through his appointment of Supreme Court justices, his Cabinet, his reform of government, executive orders, is bring real change. And I think once you start seeing that real change, it's going to make a big difference.

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