The Media Today

After two inglorious years, Sarah Huckabee Sanders will leave the White House

June 14, 2019

Last June, CBS News reported that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and Raj Shah, her deputy, were planning to quit the Trump administration. They stuck it out longer than expected. Shah left in January. Yesterday—exactly a year after the original CBS report—we learned that Sanders will depart at the end of this month. President Trump tweeted the news and Sanders did the same: a mode of communication that has characterized Sanders’s time as White House spokesperson.

Sanders took over as press secretary in July 2017, following the ouster of Sean Spicer. Sanders showed more endurance, but her performance has been no better than Spicer’s was. In her two inglorious years on the job, Sanders barred reporters who asked tough questions; promoted Trump’s bogus “fake news awards”; fell in line with the president’s anti-press, “enemy of the people” rhetoric; and routinely disparaged the intelligence and integrity of the journalists in the White House briefing room. She also lied a lot. Sanders said that Trump never encouraged violence (he did) and that he won an “overwhelming majority” of votes in 2016 (he did not). In April, the Mueller report confirmed that in May 2017, Sanders (who was then the deputy press secretary) knowingly misled reporters when she claimed—twice—that “countless” FBI staffers supported Trump’s firing of James Comey. Sanders told Mueller’s office that the claim was “not founded on anything”; it was a “slip of the tongue” that she then repeated “in the heat of the moment,” she said. How did Sanders respond to her confession becoming public? She reiterated the false claim.

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Still, Sanders may not be remembered for her lies as much as her absence. “Last month, reporters noticed that there was literally a coating of dust on the press briefing room podium,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote last night. “That is Sanders’s legacy.” On her watch, the televised White House briefing, a fixture under previous administrations, has all but gone extinct. Earlier this year, Sanders set a record for the longest time without a formal briefing since the practice began. Then she beat her own record—twice. If she doesn’t brief soon, next Wednesday will mark 100 days since Sanders last faced reporters at the podium. (She did stand there in late April, but it was only for a “bring your kids to work day” stunt that she declared off the record.) In the absence of briefings, White House reporters have had to chase Sanders down on the White House driveway to ask questions, usually following her interviews with Fox News.

Fox could be a logical next step for Sanders: ex-administration figures often take contributor gigs on cable news, and Sanders has already said that she plans to remain “one of the most outspoken and loyal supporters of the president and his agenda” outside the White House. (CNN reportedly has no interest in Sanders; it’s hard to imagine MSNBC would want her, either.) Trump, in his tweet, encouraged Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas, a post previously occupied by her father, Mike Huckabee; according to CNN, Sanders is thinking seriously about a bid, though there won’t be a vacancy until 2022.

As far as the White House press secretary job is concerned, CNN’s Stelter writes that who replaces Sanders is anyone’s guess. Trump could promote her deputy, Hogan Gidley, or he could look to an outside booster such as Laura Ingraham. (Stranger things have happened: remember Anthony Scaramucci?) The president, who has gone without a communications chief since March, may decline to fill the post. Why would he need a press secretary, when he believes himself to be his own best messenger?

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Below, more on Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the White House communications team:

  • What was the point?: Several commentators, including NYU’s Jay Rosen and Mike Allen, of Axios, have argued that briefings, when they happen, are a waste of journalists’ time anyway. Others have countered that, despite the lies from the podium, briefings give reporters an opportunity to confront the administration. Last year, CJR’s Pete Vernon wrote that a briefing “is a testament to the idea that no one is above having to explain themselves. That makes it worth saving.”
  • What Sanders said about Trump: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber writes that Sanders “broke the news” during her time as press secretary. “Her tenure serves as a reminder of what happens when partisanship, aided by the power of the presidency, is allowed to subsume everything else: traditions, norms, truth, people’s lives,” Garber writes.
  • A change of strategy: The White House Correspondents’ Association will soon elect a new president. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes that the leading candidates—S.V. Date, of HuffPost, and Steven Portnoy, of CBS News—plan to take a bolder, more confrontational approach to misinformation. (A third candidate,  Toluse Olorunnipa, of the Post, has yet to outline his plans.)
  • Game, set, Hatch?: Kellyanne Conway’s name has been touted as a possible replacement for Sanders. Yesterday, the office of special counsel recommended that Conway should be removed as a White House aide for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their position to engage in partisan activities. Trump looks like he will ignore the recommendation: yesterday, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, called it “as outrageous as it is unprecedented.”

Other notable stories:

  • Trump’s admission, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, that he would accept a foreign government’s offer of dirt on a presidential rival and not tell the FBI about it, drove the news cycle yesterday. Trump’s remarks added distressing detail to what has been established in the Mueller report on interference in the 2016 election, and bodes poorly for 2020.
  • The Democratic National Committee confirmed yesterday that Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Steve Bullock, and Mike Gravel have failed to qualify for the first presidential debate; today, the 20 candidates who did qualify will be divided into groups of 10 that will debate on June 26 and June 27, respectively. For CJR, Jason Plautz explores the DNC’s refusal to host a debate dedicated to climate change: “While sixty-second answers won’t allow candidates to get far beyond the top-line goals of their climate-change plans, filling 90 minutes of debate time would force each to reckon with the differences between their plans.” On Wednesday, activists delivered a petition for a climate debate, signed by 200,000 people, to the DNC.
  • When it comes to capturing public and press attention, Reid J. Epstein writes, for the Times, that Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have outmaneuvered the other Democratic candidates for president, “demonstrating an innate understanding of the value of viral moments and nonstop exposure that drive politics in the Trump era.” Buttigieg has done so by emphasizing his personal background; Warren has inundated reporters with policy ideas. Both have climbed in the polls.
  • Yesterday, Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior minister, confirmed that he signed off on the US government’s request to extradite Julian Assange, who is currently in jail in London. Today, the signed order will go before a British court. Assange faces an 18-count indictment in the US, most of which falls under the Espionage Act; last month, press-freedom experts called the indictment a “terrifying” threat to journalism. Sweden had also hoped to extradite Assange, to face a rape investigation, but a Swedish court ruled last week that Assange does not need to be detained in the country after all.
  • In Turkey, prosecutors have charged Kerim Karakaya and Fercan Yalinkilic, two Bloomberg journalists, with attempting to undermine the country’s economic stability; the pair had reported last year on the official response to a severe currency shock in Turkey. The same indictment targets 36 other people “for social media comments on the story, or comments deemed critical of Turkey’s economy and banks,” Bloomberg reports.
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick looks at two Congressional bills intended to help out the news industry: one would allow publishers to team up to demand better financial terms from big tech platforms; the other would make it easier for news organizations to seek nonprofit status.
  • Last month, Corey Hutchins reported for CJR from La Plata County, Colorado—an“orphan county,” where residents get irrelevant political news from a TV market based outside their home state. This week, following pressure from Cory Gardner, Colorado’s Republican senator, the Federal Communications Commission signaled that it will grant La Plata County residents access to Denver’s TV market instead.
  • And the Mirror Awards, given by Syracuse University to celebrate reporting on the media industry, were announced yesterday. CJR was among the winners: Sarah Jones won for her piece about class and journalism. Ronan Farrow, of The New Yorker, won for his work exposing sexual misconduct by Les Moonves, who subsequently stepped down from CBS. Farrow addressed those gathered at the ceremony: “I see some people [here] who have lied to protect power,” he said.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.