Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said Thursday that she would step down as White House press secretary, was a contrast to her immediate predecessor, Sean Spicer.CreditTom Brenner/The New York Times
ImageSarah Huckabee Sanders, who said Thursday that she would step down as White House press secretary, was a contrast to her immediate predecessor, Sean Spicer.CreditCreditTom Brenner/The New York Times
By Michael M. Grynbaum
June 14, 2019
If Sean Spicer’s tenure as White House press secretary made him a figure of national renown and mockery, priming him for his current incarnation as a special correspondent on the syndicated TV show “Extra,” the legacy of his successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is more straightforward. And, perhaps, more lasting.
She made the White House briefing boring again — gaffes and ratings dropped off — before effectively killing it off entirely, or at least leaving it in a politically induced coma.
She falsely called a CNN reporter a groper and stripped him of his press credential. (A judge later restored it.)
From a lectern with the presidential seal, she urged Americans to watch a propaganda video from the right-wing activist James O’Keefe — “whether it’s accurate or not” — and fabricated an anecdote about F.B.I. agents calling her to complain about their former director James B. Comey.
Mr. Spicer tossed off his share of falsehoods (a dubious claim about crowd size comes to mind), but he could never quite conceal the strain of life as President Trump’s press secretary. The fear of a mercurial boss, the constant pressure to misdirect — it played out on live TV across his face, a grimace that gave the game away.
Ms. Sanders, who announced her departure on Thursday, never seemed especially flustered.
“It’s one of the greatest jobs I could ever have; I’ve loved every minute, even the hard minutes,” she said at the White House, after Mr. Trump praised her and gave her a kiss on the head.
In contrast to Mr. Spicer’s flop-sweat demeanor, Ms. Sanders displayed the devotion of a true believer. “God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president,” Ms. Sanders, an evangelical who prayed before her briefings, told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
In an interview with The New York Times shortly after taking her job, she confessed that she “certainly didn’t approve” of some of Mr. Trump’s remarks on the campaign trail.
“But at the same time, we were looking for a commander in chief,” she added. “Not a pastor.”
The first mother to serve as press secretary, Ms. Sanders was feted upon her promotion by female reporters and White House aides at a “women of the White House” happy hour. She could be sociable with reporters, sipping wine after hours and offering guidance behind closed West Wing doors.
In public, though, she said reporters reminded her of her rambunctious children — a cute but cunning put-down. At the lectern, she read aloud children’s letters to the president, calling attention to Mr. Trump’s unsung fans but also running down the clock before journalists had a chance to ask questions.
At a pre-Thanksgiving briefing, she requested that reporters preface their queries by saying what they were thankful for. Her supporters called it humanizing; many reporters called it patronizing.
Despite her boss’s boycott, she agreed to appear at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where the comedian Michelle Wolf proceeded to rebuke her as an “Uncle Tom” for “white women,” among other insults. Reporters swarmed Ms. Sanders at a party afterward to express sympathies.
But the diminution of the briefing eroded some of that support. More than three months — 95 days — have passed since the last time Ms. Sanders took to the lectern in the James S. Brady Briefing Room. The new normal became ad hoc gaggles on the White House walkway: disorganized scrums where reporters who happen to be on the grounds can shout questions at Ms. Sanders as she walks back to her office.
Some contrarian media critics said good riddance, calling the briefing a Sisyphean exercise of obligatory questions and maddening nonanswers. Press advocates disagreed, saying the daily ritual of an administration being held accountable to the public sends an important signal to the world about transparency and accountability.
The pressure cooker of White House briefings has been rewarded with lucrative careers. Dana Perino, a press secretary under George W. Bush, is now a popular Fox News host; George Stephanopoulos, who briefed in the early days of Bill Clinton’s first term, is the chief anchor of ABC News.
Mr. Spicer’s post-White House run has challenged that path; among his stumbles was a failed talk show pilot called “Sean Spicer’s Common Ground.”
On Thursday, Ms. Sanders told reporters that she had no regrets about cutting back the briefings and may consider a new turn in her career: running for her father’s old job as governor of Arkansas.
“I learned a long time ago,” she said, “never to rule anything out.”