Sean Spicer has carved out a niche as the combative mouthpiece for US President Donald Trump but it appears he might have stepped aside as main press briefer amid speculation of a rift between the pair.

Spicer has gained international celebrity for his often combative interactions with reporters at daily briefings but he has this week been suspiciously absent from them.

White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders this week fronted the briefings instead of the press secretary despite Spicer being in the building at the time.

While deputy press secretaries have filled in when the principal press secretary is otherwise occupied - as Sanders did when Spicer was on naval reserve duty recently - it is otherwise unprecedented.

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But signs something was awry have been there for weeks.

While Spicer did appear in the briefing room last week, his appearances were brief, including a 12-minute question-and-answer session that the White House would not allow to be aired on television.

On Monday, Sanders took the podium and appeared to acknowledge for the first time that Spicer would be a less frequent on-camera presence for the White House.

"He is taking on a little bit of extra duty at this point," she said.

"There are a lot of demands on his schedule, particularly given the fact that there's not a communications director."

The alleged deteriorating relationship between Trump and Spicer reportedly deepened when the president held the press secretary responsible for not better handling the outrage over his firing of FBI director James Comey.

First lady Melania Trump was reportedly unhappy with the performance of Spicer.

Trump had vented over the past few weeks that the press team was "not proactive" in defending her husband and that Spicer was "not doing a good job," a source told Politico.

"The leaks bother her," the source said. "She believes a lot of people are more interested in serving themselves than him."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Photo/AP
White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Photo/AP

In its effort to regain control of its message, the White House has curtailed press briefings, redirected questions on the Russia investigation to an outside lawyer and planned a major infrastructure policy rollout for this week.

Mike Dubke resigned as communications director last month and served his final day in the White House on Friday. He has not yet been replaced.

CNN reported there was much talk during Trump's foreign trip that Spicer would never return to the briefing podium when the president returned stateside. Spicer did, in fact, get back in the saddle several times last week, but it seemed like his heart wasn't in it.

"He recited talking points, read prepared answers and ended the briefings as quickly as he possibly could," CNN reported.

"By Friday, he had simply ceased answering any questions at all - referring queries to either the State Department or Trump's personal lawyer.

"Asked whether President Trump believed in global warming - a question he had been asked several days earlier - Spicer said he had still not had a chance to talk to the President about it.

"A follow-up as to whether he would be able to find that time soon had Spicer, again, noncommittal."