The na­tion in brief

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM


“Of­ten­times, peo­ple want to make politi­cians per­fect. And that’s one of the ac­tual beau­ties of Chris­tian­ity, is un­der­stand­ing that no one is.” Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, the White House press sec­re­tary, de­scrib­ing work­ing on be­half of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump

Pickle did not go as planned.

When Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, the newly minted White House press sec­re­tary, be­gan her first of­fi­cial brief­ing by read­ing a child’s let­ter to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump — “Ev­ery­body calls me Pickle, I’m 9 years old, and you’re my fa­vorite pres­i­dent” — the back­lash was swift.

Re­porters called it a trans­par­ent at­tempt to dis­tract from sev­eral scan­dals roil­ing the White House. The­o­ries sur­faced that Trump, who once im­per­son­ated his own spokesman, had writ­ten the mis­sive him­self. (He didn’t.)

“I didn’t know it was go­ing to be such a con­tro­versy,” San­ders said in an in­ter­view last week in her spar­tan West Wing of­fice. “I was like, what has hap­pened in Amer­ica when a kid writes a very in­no­cent, nice let­ter, and it turns into, like, hand­writ­ing spe­cial­ists and psy­chol­o­gists?”

The Pickle af­fair of­fered in­sight into the dis­trust that has de­vel­oped be­tween the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and the jour­nal­ists whose work the pres­i­dent de­rides as “fake news.” And it un­der­scored the na­ture of San­ders’ new job: De­fend­ing a pres­i­dent in con­flict with the news me­dia and rep­re­sent­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tion that has re­peat­edly been de­nounced for play­ing loose with facts.

San­ders, who in­her­ited her po­si­tion when her pre­de­ces­sor, Sean Spicer, quit, is try­ing to man­age cov­er­age of a tu­mul­tuous White House while mol­li­fy­ing a boss who be­lieves he is his own best spokesman.

“It’s a chal­leng­ing po­si­tion un­der any pres­i­dent, much more so un­der Pres­i­dent Trump,” said Scott McClel­lan, a for­mer press sec­re­tary to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. “She can help the pres­i­dent ad­vance his agenda and broaden his ap­peal be­yond his base, if — and it’s a big ‘if’ — he will avoid un­der­min­ing her.”

In a White House of out­size char­ac­ters, San­ders, 34, has flown un­der the radar — Trump, for all his use of so­cial me­dia, has never posted on Twit­ter about her by name. If Spicer’s gaffe-prone brief­ings mu­tated into un­help­ful spec­ta­cles, San­ders’ ses­sions tend to be flat and un­event­ful, not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing for a stormy ad­min­is­tra­tion.

An evan­gel­i­cal who reads from a book of Chris­tian de­vo­tion­als be­fore ev­ery brief­ing — and the daugh­ter of the pas­tor-turned-pres­i­den­tial-can­di­date Mike Huck­abee, a for­mer Repub­li­can gov­er­nor of Arkansas — San­ders is an un­likely pub­lic face for Trump, who is known for air­ing griev­ances with­out reser­va­tion.

“I cer­tainly didn’t ap­prove of a cou­ple of the com­ments,” San­ders said of her time on Trump’s cam­paign, where she served as an ad­viser and on-air sur­ro­gate. “But at the same time, we were look­ing for a com­man­der in chief, not a pas­tor.”

“Of­ten­times, peo­ple want to make politi­cians per­fect,” she added. “And that’s one of the ac­tual beau­ties of Chris­tian­ity, is un­der­stand­ing that no one is.”

She is the first mother to serve as press sec­re­tary and is among the youngest to take on the role. At the lectern, she is folksy but nim­ble: She re­cently de­flected ques­tions about “chaos” in the White House by invit­ing re­porters to visit the three preschool­ers in her liv­ing room. There were laughs, even as San­ders sidestepped the ques­tion.

She is also un­afraid to call out re­porters and news cov­er­age that she deems un­fair. Asked in the in­ter­view whether the es­tab­lish­ment me­dia is bi­ased against Trump, she replied, “Ab­so­lutely.”

“I’ve never seen the level of hos­til­ity that this press corps has to the pres­i­dent,” she said.

Be­hind the scenes, re­porters who cover the West Wing say San­ders can be friendly and warm — the good cop to Spicer’s bark­ing sergeant. Last week, sev­eral dozen jour­nal­ists and White House aides, in­clud­ing Kellyanne Con­way, toasted San­ders’ pro­mo­tion at an all-fe­male “women of the White House” happy hour at a Wash­ing­ton ho­tel bar.

But like Spicer, San­ders at times has drawn crit­i­cism for some du­bi­ous as­ser­tions.

Con­fronted with Trump’s call for law en­force­ment agents to rough up gang sus­pects, she said the pres­i­dent “was mak­ing a joke.” While de­nounc­ing CNN, she urged Amer­i­cans to watch a video crit­i­cal of the net­work by a right­ist ac­tivist, James O’Keefe, “whether it’s ac­cu­rate or not.”

When a re­porter asked whether Trump had lied about a lauda­tory phone call from the Boy Scouts, San­ders shot back: “That’s a pretty bold ac­cu­sa­tion.” She also con­ceded that the call had not hap­pened.

The pres­i­dent’s vo­latil­ity has caught her off guard. In May, San­ders, then deputy press sec­re­tary, told re­porters that Trump had not made up his mind to fire his FBI di­rec­tor, James Comey, un­til af­ter he re­ceived a rec­om­men­da­tion from the Jus­tice Depart­ment. The next day, Trump said the op­po­site.

“Her pre­de­ces­sor to a large de­gree was will­ingly sac­ri­fic­ing his cred­i­bil­ity, and he was put in a bad po­si­tion,” McClel­lan said. “The chal­lenge will be not to sac­ri­fice the strength that she brings.”

San­ders was en­joy­ing a rel­a­tively quiet Twit­ter day dur­ing the in­ter­view. She said she was look­ing for­ward to some down­time with her hus­band and their three chil­dren, whose art­work hangs above her desk.

Asked about Trump’s un­pre­dictabil­ity, San­ders stayed on mes­sage.

“We have no two days that are alike, which I love,” she said. (Huck­abee was more can­did on a ra­dio show in June, say­ing, “He makes my daugh­ter’s job very dif­fi­cult with tweets like that.”)

Steeped in pol­i­tics since grade school, San­ders re­mem­bers por­ing over poll re­sults with the con­sul­tant Dick Mor­ris at the fam­ily’s kitchen ta­ble.

“Look­ing back, that was prob­a­bly not the most nor­mal thing in the world,” she re­called.

At 25, San­ders helped her fa­ther win an up­set vic­tory in the 2008 Iowa cau­cus. In 2016, she man­aged his pres­i­den­tial bid un­til he dropped out. “That didn’t go so well,” she said, wryly.

She wakes up at 5 a.m. to spend time with her chil­dren and talk with her fa­ther, who texts her feed­back af­ter brief­ings.

“She’s not eas­ily rat­tled,” Huck­abee said of his daugh­ter’s calm de­meanor at the lectern. “She’s not go­ing to throw punches just be­cause she can.”

Not ev­ery re­porter is pleased with her ap­proach.

“I don’t want to hear any­more about the chaos in her home,” said Brian Karem, a White House cor­re­spon­dent for the Sen­tinel news­pa­pers in Mary­land who has clashed with San­ders. “If she tells me one more story about how three preschool­ers can be more chaotic than a hun­dred and some odd re­porters in the White House press of­fice, I’ll even vol­un­teer to baby-sit.”

Dana Perino, Bush’s fourth press sec­re­tary, said such crit­i­cism misses the mark.

“The re­porters will roll their eyes,” she said. “But Sarah isn’t do­ing that for the press — she’s do­ing it for their sup­port­ers and their base. The more they make fun of it, the more she’ll do it.”

San­ders said that talk­ing about fam­ily came nat­u­rally — “That’s just kind of who I am” — and she scolded some jour­nal­ists for seek­ing “gotcha” mo­ments.

“We may from the out­side seem more ad­ver­sar­ial” than past ad­min­is­tra­tions, San­ders said, “but you should see the hun­dred sto­ries I deal with be­fore go­ing out there. Some of the most out­ra­geous claims with no facts, no sourc­ing. It’s like, ‘an un­named source close to the White House.’ I’m like: ‘What does that mean? The guy that works at the coffee shop across the street?’ You have to give me more than that.”

White House ad­vis­ers say San­ders has grown closer with Trump, who ap­proves of her even-keeled brief­ings.

In the in­ter­view, San­ders heaped praise on Trump, call­ing him “a great guy” and “a fighter.” Twice, she said, “I love the pres­i­dent,” echo­ing a fa­vorite phrase of An­thony Scara­mucci, who briefly served as com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor.

Huck­abee, asked whether he has qualms about his daugh­ter rep­re­sent­ing Trump, said he was proud.

“I know she’s do­ing ev­ery­thing she can to be straight­for­ward and hon­est,” Huck­abee said. “I know that she is go­ing to be loyal to a fault.”


White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders speaks Aug. 1 dur­ing the daily brief­ing at the White House in Wash­ing­ton.

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