It’s not a party for Sarah Huckabee Sanders

June 25, 2019
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On June 13, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that she would step down as White House Press Secretary, Francesca Chambers, White House correspondent for the Daily Mail, and Anita Kumar, White House correspondent for Politico, invited some Trump staffers and members of the press corps to “farewell drinks” in honor of “SHS.”

Held at Rare Steakhouse, the entrance was roped off for the event. Chambers clutched a glass of sparkling wine and presided over the guests—by the evening’s end, there would be about 50. “I mean, this has been tough,” David Smith, Washington bureau chief for the Guardian, who stood at the back of the room, said. “At least I get to write about other things. But most of the people in here are entirely reliant. Sarah Sanders is a true believer.” 

Chris Johnson, with the Washington Blade, said that his was the only LGBTQ paper in the White House press corps. “I’ve been called on maybe one or two times during her entire tenure,” he said. “It was overwhelmingly frustrating.”

ICYMI: Did NYT ignore a major story because it wasn’t the paper’s own scoop?

John Gizzi, White House correspondent with Newsmax, worked the event with an intern, Clare Hillen. He was impressed by Sanders. “Remember, her father is the father of the modern Republican party,” he said. What about access? “If anyone wants to say she’s aloof or distant, they’re wrong on that,” he replied. “I told her about Clare, and she was perfectly willing to have a private meeting with her in her office. But then we were cancelled at the last minute, it was the day she announced she was out.”

Hillen just finished her freshman year at George Washington University, where she majors in International Affairs. “I haven’t been able to meet any of the other interns because I haven’t been able to witness any press briefings, so that’s been a bummer,” she said. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

After half an hour, a black Suburban pulled up outside. Two men escorted Sanders, in a short red dress and beige heels, and her husband, Bryan. The room lurched toward her: a rare sighting. She did not speak.

The correspondents huddled to grab selfies with Sanders. She squeezed hands and smiled, relaxed, three days out from vacation. (She wasn’t telling where.) Chambers appeared, spreading her fingers across Sanders’s cheek to whisper in her ear. Then Madeleine Westerhout, Director of Oval Office Operations, came in; Sanders gasped and ran over to embrace her.

When the party had been announced, some journalists (and news readers) balked. “I’m on a cross-country flight, and very disturbed that in the midst of these serious issues, of possible strikes against Iran, there was no briefing by Sarah Huckabee Sanders in over 100 plus days,” April Ryan, a CNN analyst and White House correspondent, said in an Instagram video. “Sarah Huckabee, have your party. I won’t be there. Girl, bye!”

In a statement to Newsweek, Kumar described the evening as “not an official WHCA event,” “quite common, regardless of administration,” and added that “all attendees are responsible for paying their own bill, including Sarah Sanders.” Another correspondent said, “It’s not a party.” 

ICYMI: Tragic AP photo from the border unleashes outpouring of emotion

Todd Gillman, Washington bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News and a board member of the White House Correspondents Association, sent CJR a missive: “Anyone who has covered City Hall or a legislature or Congress or the White House or any other beat, really, knows that you have to deal with all sorts of folks,” he wrote. “Some you admire, some you don’t. Some are very helpful, others less so. Journalists don’t decide who wins elections, and we don’t get a say in who the president hires. Our choice is to work with them, or do a really terrible job. That doesn’t mean there’s mutual affection or trust all the time. It just means there’s either a working relationship or no relationship.” At the event, sipping beer, he said that briefings were important to him—but he didn’t cite Sanders. “One time President Trump called on me, shortly after Hurricane Harvey, so it was likely a Texas news outlet would get a question. I asked about federal aid, and a follow up. It was good.” 

A White House correspondent who resembled a young William Shatner (and didn’t want to be named) took a gulp of beer and said that the night felt like “the end of a battle, or a decent game of rugby, where at the end of the day you shake hands.” 

A colleague chimed in, “Everybody has their issue with Sarah Sanders, but if you can’t have a drink with somebody, then all of civilization has broken down.”  

Men in dark suits jostled around Sanders; she headed back out to the Suburban. Westerhout and a couple of correspondents settled in at the bar. A chef silently shucked oysters behind a marble counter by the door. Hogan Gidley, White House principal deputy press secretary, mixed with the guests and smiled over his shoulder. A rumor went around that he would replace Sanders.  

Editors Note: A previous version of this article misidentified Madeleine Westerhout. 

ICYMI: MSNBC devotes majority of Democratic candidate 2020 coverage to Biden, data shows

Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.