The jokes came flying at the White House press secretary’s expense. And the punchlines hit what critics consider her already weakened credibility.
“I’m not going to believe that Sarah Huckabee Sanders is leaving as White House press secretary until she denies it herself,” wrote one New York Times critic on Twitter.
“But if Sarah Sanders tells us she’s resigning as Press Secretary how are we supposed to know if it’s true?” tweeted a comedian.
On Thursday, Sanders announced plans to leave the White House at the end of this month. She served just under two years as press secretary, and her departure leaves a gaping void in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump — a commander in chief who is said to put a premium on loyalty.
Sanders, who has not convened a White House press briefing in 95 days as of Friday, had evidently won the trust of the president, becoming one of his most visible protectors and closest advisers. But she may have also encouraged the demise of the White House press briefing, critics say, and lost the trust of the press corps.
Under Sanders, once-daily press briefings went from routine to rare. Just eight were held in the last 300 days, according to a CNN count.
The lack of briefings has denied the American public a central locus of transparency about what the government is doing, said Mary Stuckey, a Pennsylvania State University professor who specializes in political rhetoric and communication.
“That’s governmental malpractice,” she said. “This White House has refused its responsibility for government transparency in a way I think is unconscionable.”
Refusing to hold daily briefings, a decades-old tradition, could be a troubling signal to future leaders.
“If I was president and I saw this president got away with it, I would wonder if I would, too,” Stuckey said. “If one president does it, it’s just a thing. If two presidents in a row do it, then you start looking at a precedent.”
Yet what critics consider dereliction of duty won Sanders great favour with Trump and his backers. At the White House on Thursday, the U.S. president endorsed her for a promotion in public office.
“If we can get her to run for the governor of Arkansas, I think she’ll do very well. I’m trying to get her to do that,” Trump said of Sanders, who said she is leaving to spend more time with family.
In August 2018, she offered incorrect statistics underplaying the growth of African-American employment under former president Barack Obama’s administration, comparing them less favourably to Trump’s numbers.
And in July 2017, contrary to rhetoric Trump has made on the record, as well as on the Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, Sanders claimed: “The president in no way, form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence.”
It almost seemed to become routine, Stuckey said. “I think Sarah Huckabee Sanders has a reputation … she’s probably the most dishonest press secretary ever.”
Calls for Conway’s resignation
It would be tempting to see Sanders’ exit as an untimely blow to the president’s spin team. One of his other chief surrogates, counsellor to the president Kellyanne Conway, faces calls for her ouster by an independent federal agency that accused her of violating the Hatch Act, a law banning federal employees from making political statements while acting in an official capacity.
Conway has arguably doubled as another press secretary. But she’s unlikely to be ousted from her job, as it’s up to the president’s discretion to enforce the Hatch Act. And on Friday, Trump confirmed he won’t fire Conway.
“The president wants people to go out and be partisan in a way that Kellyanne Conway has been,” said Martha Kumar, a retired Towson University political science professor and expert on White House press secretaries. “She’s been his defender at a time when a lot of other people on his staff are keeping their heads low.”
For Sanders, reaching two years on the job before burning out isn’t all that unusual, Kumar said.
Indeed, that sounds like part of the normal churn of White House staff jobs to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric and the director of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. But thinking about Sanders’ departure as the departure of a press secretary might only capture part of the story.
What shouldn’t be discounted, Jamieson said, is the nontraditional “quasi-advisory role” Sanders reportedly played in Trump’s presidency.
“There was once a time when [the press briefing] was what a press secretary did. So are we going to miss her in that role? No, because it’s been a while,” Jamieson said. “It appears to have been vacant for some time.”
Whomever the White House chooses to replace Sanders, Jamieson isn’t expecting some senior official willing to help the press perform its role in explaining the fraught and complicated business of government. That’s not what she feels the Trump administration is looking for.
If Sanders’ job was larger than press secretary and had elements of “constraining the president’s actions” if they threatened to become problematic for the country, she said, then that’s likely the kind of influential sounding board Trump will be seeking.
“If, in fact, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was performing that role … the question is who’s going to perform that role now?” Jamieson said.