When a report that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was planning on leaving the White House circulated Wednesday, it's safe to say few people were rending their garments in grief. Both before and after she took over for Sean Spicer last July, Sanders has spent countless hours sparring with a press corps openly despised by her boss. That has meant defending Donald Trump's calling Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas" in front of Navajo code talkers, trying like hell to discredit mainstream outlets like CNN, saying things about the Trump campaign's meeting with a Russian lawyer that were demonstrably untrue, and countless other large and small acts of obfuscation. (She also recently called Dennis Rodman on behalf of Trump to thank him after the North Korea summit.)
A lot of people—including, perhaps most famously, comedian Michele Wolf—would call what Sanders does for a living "lying." There are examples of her saying verifiable untrue things, but more often she'll just bat down whatever question is thrown at her, hockey goalie–style, without offering anything in the way of an answer. To pick a random example, in April she was asked about Trump saying once again that there was widespread voter fraud in 2016, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked. This was her response:
The president still strongly feels that there was a large amount of voter fraud and attempted to do a thorough review of it, but a lot of states didn't want to participate. We certainly know there were a large number of incidents reported but we can't be sure exactly how much because we weren't able to conduct the full review that the president wanted.
Almost none of that is provably untrue. Trump does feel—and has repeatedly said—that there was voter fraud, though you may feel he is full of shit. States did decline to give all the requested voter information to the voter fraud commission, in some cases citing privacy laws. It is actually false that a large number of incidents were reported (though "large number" is awfully vague), but while It seems insane to assert that if the commission would have actually found widespread fraud, unlikely hypotheticals aren't the same thing as lies. That answer, like most of her answers, is a dodge, a squid ink–esque cloud of words that provides no useful information but lets her move on to the next question. (Her response to the CBS News story about her impending departure was a similarly obscure non-denial denial: She slammed the reporters for not talking to her but didn't say she wasn't leaving. "I'll pray for clarity... on what my future looks like," she told the press corps on Thursday.)
In a sense, Sanders is very good at her job, which is to stand in front of the media nearly every day and say nothing of substance and lie straight-up only when she has to. She's certainly better at it than Spicer, who compounded Trump's constant bullshit with his own unforced errors. Sanders, whether or not she is planning on leaving, is not the problem at the White House—and things will not get better in any way after she departs. The problem is the job itself.
Before getting on the Trump train, Sanders, like many of her fellow passengers, was a longtime Republican operative who didn't seem to endorse the far-right ideology that the reality TV host has brought to the White House. In a 2010 interview with Time, when asked about the "most overlooked issue facing America," she cited fathers being absent from their children's lives. "Kids who are the victims of broken families are more likely to end up in poverty, rehab, or jail," she said. "I'm a Republican, but I respect President Obama for setting the right example and addressing this problem."
In 2011 she signed up for a stint on what turned out to be a comically short presidential campaign for the milquetoast Republican Tim Pawlenty. "I'm a huge conservative, but I’m not mad about it," is how she described herself to Forbes later that year, after Pawlenty had dropped out. "I want somebody who feels that way, who’s not going to come out and say, ‘Anytime a Democrat opens their mouth it’s clearly the dumbest idea that’s ever been uttered.’"
Years later she backed Trump, according to a Politico profile, because she liked his anti-establishment talk and figured he had the best shot of the GOP candidates to beat Hillary Clinton. She stuck by Trump even after the tape of him bragging about grabbing women by the pussy surfaced weeks before the election—a put up or shut up moment for many Trump supporters. "Both of these candidates are flawed,” she told CNN's Jake Tapper in her boss's defense, before pivoting to talk about Benghazi.
Being a Trump spokesperson means habitually defending the indefensible—from domestic abuse allegations against a White House aide to all manner of stories about the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign—and Sanders is likely used to it by now. Still, on any given day the briefings can turn into remarkably vicious battles. On Thursday, in the span of a single press conference, she said that the administration was merely following the law when it separated kids from parents at the southern border when in fact, a recent decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute everyone crossing the border illegally has led to the routine separation of families. She then blamed Democrats for the law, even though Republicans control Congress, followed Sessions's lead in claiming there was Biblical justification for the policy, told CNN's Jim Acosta, "It’s hard for you to understand even short sentences," and told off another reporter when he asked, "Don't you have any empathy?"
As those exchanges show, there's a lot of mutual hostility between the press and Sanders, and she certainly has contributed her share with her style—she can be dismissive, misleading, and insulting all at the same time, which is a kind of talent. But, less than shockingly, she also seems to be left out to dry by the White House on occasion. This was the case last month when she said she didn't know about Trump's payments to Stormy Daniels, saying of her past statements (which turned out to be misleading), "I’ve given the best information I had at the time.” Scientists are hard at work constructing a violin small enough to accompany the pathos of this excuse.
Whenever Sanders decides that she's had enough, a replacement press secretary will no doubt be easy to find. For one thing, Sanders made $165,000 in 2017, even before being promoted to press secretary. For another, plenty of people figure notoriety is not all that different from fame. Someone will be eager to step up and fight Trump's war on the press for him, they'll do their best brick wall impression from behind the podium, and they'll eventually get worn out of being burned in effigy on all the late night programs and quit to go write a memoir and do some speaking gigs. (Sean Spicer has certainly enjoyed a soft landing after his disastrous tenure.)
But whoever replaces Sanders will have the same problems she inherited from Spicer: an erratic, truth-allergic chief executive, an administration full of corrupt characters, a suite of policies that are both cruel and unpopular, and a press corps that has been sick of the misdirection and dishonesty since at least the whole inauguration crowd thing last year. The White House press secretary gig has always been rough, but now it's basically impossible. On most days, Sanders comes out, repeats the same few blanket denials over and over, then gets righteously denounced by the media.
The purpose of these briefings is to get the White House to share and defend its views on record, an important part of attempting to hold the president accountable. But in the hands of an administration with such a casual disregard for the truth, this purpose has become warped. What's the point of asking questions when the answers can shift without proper explanation, when contradictions and outright lies are shrugged off? More and more these briefings have become yet another venue for partisan bickering, which is good if you want clips for cable news but bad if you hope to be informed. Political journalists have done an admirable job of covering this White House's actions through FOIA requests, leaks, and other tools of investigative reporting. This has become a necessity, because the official channels have corroded beyond repair.
No one should feel sorry for Sanders, who chooses every day to work for Trump and may profit greatly in the aftermath of this gig. But if she does leave soon, it won't represent a win for the Resistance or democratic norms or a free press. She's not to blame for the poisonous relationship between Trumpland and the media, and briefings won't improve under her successor—unless the press does the responsible thing and simply stops showing up.
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