Sarah Sanders, You Will Not Be Missed
That is, to quote various Internet commentators—themselves quoting Ice Cube’s character in the seminal comedy Friday—upon hearing the news Sarah Sanders plans to leave the White House by the end of the month, ending her tenure as press secretary.
Of course, now begins the rampant speculation as to who will succeed Sanders in this role. A few people have wryly suggested conservative vloggers, social media personalities, political activists, and Fox Nation hosts Diamond and Silk are the new oddsmakers’ favorites to win the position. This is a joke—although given the disjointed and surreal way the Trump administration has operated heretofore, you can’t rule this possibility out either.
From a survival perspective in the tumult of the Trump White House, Sanders’s run is notable. Certainly, she has well eclipsed the likes of Anthony Scaramucci, whose short service in the capacity of White House Director of Communications is the minimum standard by which future Trump appointees might be judged. For that matter, she also has far surpassed her predecessor, Sean Spicer. If we’re giving Sanders credit—the conditions for which doing so are seemingly minuscule in the Trump era—there’s that, at least.
As Sanders’s watch comes to a close, though, and as per the wont of the American opinion journalism landscape, one is left to ponder what her legacy is alongside her contemporaries and others who have held her title in the past. Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent for CNN, puts it rather succinctly: “Sarah Sanders’ primary legacy as White House press secretary will be the death of the daily press briefing.”
On the infrequency of her appearances before the media, he’s not wrong. At this writing, Sanders’s last press briefing occurred on March 11, more than three months ago. In doing so, she broke her own previous records for the longest span without a briefing held in White House history. As an added bonus, and as Stelter notes, last month, reporters spied a coating of dust on her podium. Yeah, it’s that bad.
To be fair, many might not consider this a significant loss given Sanders’s propensity to stonewall White House reporters if not lie to them outright. From the details of the Mueller report, we know she admitted to fabricating tales of “countless” FBI agents thanking President Trump for firing James Comey as director on multiple occasions. She later characterized her description as a “slip of the tongue.”
But this was more than just misleading. This was a lie. When members of the journalism community found this much out, several called for her immediate ouster or resignation. Whatever credibility Sanders had maintained up to that point, she had destroyed it by acknowledging her prior comments were “not founded on anything.” Without the public’s trust, what good is having her on board?
Sanders’s wanton disregard for truth-telling, paired with the notion that her replacement probably won’t be much of an improvement—if at all—would therefore seem to render her departure inconsequential. As Stelter finds, meanwhile, her abdication of even the pretense of authenticity and transparency is a significant departure from past precedent. Both she and President Trump have contended that these press briefings aren’t essential when the president and other members of the administration are accessible in other ways. Namely Twitter.
And yet, 3 A.M. rants by the Commander-in-Chief aren’t the same as scheduled events marked by the ability of a free press to ask the White House direct questions. As Stelter puts it:
Press briefings matter for both symbolic and practical reasons. Symbolically, televised briefings show that the White House is open for business and willing to answer questions. And on a practical level, briefings are an efficient way for the administration to address numerous topics and engage with a wide variety of news outlets.
Accountability. Directness. Fairness. Visibility. These are hallmarks of good communication notably absent from the White House with Sarah Sanders as press secretary. Even within the confines of the Trump era, Sanders is not the only representative of the president to have a contentious and disingenuous relationship with the media; Kellyanne Conway’s thumbing her nose at the Hatch Act as well as the very existence of verifiable facts is an affront to everyone who listens to her speak. From an historical perspective, too, there are umpteen instance of presidents nakedly exhibiting antipathy toward the press. See also “Nixon, Richard.”
This merely provides context, though. It does not exculpate her as a member of an administration that has all but declared war on journalists. It doesn’t clear her of going after Jim Acosta’s press credentials if not his job citing blatantly edited footage, his alleged grandstanding aside. Or for tweeting about the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve her from her official government Twitter account. Or for accusing the media of spreading “fake news” about President Trump. Or for insisting he has never encouraged the use of violence against protesters.
Wait—there’s more. Or for misrepresenting legal situations involving the president or members of his administration such as Rob Porter. Or for citing the Bible and blaming Democrats for Trump’s family separation policy. Or for seriously overstating the numbers of individuals on the terror watch list getting apprehended at the Mexican border. Or for repeatedly failing to agree with the idea that the press “is not the enemy of the people.” Sanders may not be the only or worst example of bad behavior in the White House—we need look no further than the man setting the tone at the top for the ugliest conduct of all. But she’s an example of it nonetheless.
Indeed, as someone who once tweeted with relish about “Trump derangement syndrome,” a fictitious malady supposedly afflicting Democrats and other liberals, one has to assume Sanders, at least on some level, approves of Donald Trump and his agenda. That she’s jumping ship now like so many other officials have done under Trump’s watch shouldn’t make her look more palatable, nor should she get a round of applause given the difficulty of her placement. She agreed to this arrangement. Like the rest of her fallen comrades, she had to have some idea of what she was getting herself into.
What is perhaps most befuddling about the news of Sarah Sanders’s imminent departure is that it comes attached with multiple reports of her political aspirations, specifically “seriously considering” running for governor of Arkansas, a post once held by her father, former-presidential-candidate-turned-online-conservative-troll Mike Huckabee. Sanders has already established that she’s a professional liar, which some might concede makes her better qualified to be a politician. Our cynicism aside, is this the kind of person Arkansans want to represent them? Because her dad used to be governor, does she therefore make more sense than other candidates? Or is it that she carried water for President “Make America Great Again?” She didn’t even finish a full term as press secretary. What makes voters think she’ll be willing to work with them over the long haul?
Even yet more quizzical is the news that members of the media are evidently planning a going-away party for Sanders involving “farewell drinks” at an upscale D.C. bar. A going-away party? For the woman who refused to say that the press is not the enemy of the American people and who has let her podium literally collect dust? It’s preposterous and yet totally believable coming from a group that sought to console Sanders after her roasting at the hands of Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wolf did her job. Sanders has flouted her responsibility. The only “going-away party” I would want to see or attend if I were a White House reporter is one saying “good riddance” to someone who didn’t have my back after my colleagues came to her defense for being the lying mouthpiece of a would-be despot.
Again, Sarah Sanders may not be the worst the Trump administration has to offer and her yet-unnamed successor stands to be a downgrade. That’s not saying much for her as a person, however. As far as I am concerned, and as I know other conscientious objectors to the Trump presidency feel, Sarah Sanders, you will not be missed. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.