Sarah Huckabee Sanders is on a White House tightrope
WASHINGTON — Sarah Huckabee Sanders does not want you to read this story.
When Yahoo News asked the White House’s principal deputy press secretary if she was willing to be interviewed for an article about her life and increasingly high-profile role in the administration of President Trump, she declined and said she’d prefer it wasn’t written at all.
“My job is to promote the president. Any profile should be on him,” Sanders said.
Whether she likes it or not, Sanders has found herself in the spotlight. Earlier this month, she stood in for press secretary Sean Spicer behind the podium in the White House briefing room. Sanders delivered mocking media criticism and sarcasm with a Southern drawl, smile and permanently arched eyebrow. Her performance had reporters laughing along as she scolded them for questioning the president.
Sanders’ stint as the public face of the Trump administration fueled rumors she could emerge on top of a potential shakeup in the West Wing press shop. It also coincided with the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which plunged the White House into scandal and left Sanders’ credibility bruised after her initial account of the dismissal was contradicted by Trump.
She wasn’t willing to talk about herself, but Sanders’ family and colleagues were more forthcoming. They described her as a political prodigy and rising star. But that meteoric trajectory has now led Sanders to one of the most precarious positions in a wildly unstable White House.
The Trump administration has seemingly faced a new scandal on an almost nightly basis, leaving the press shop scrambling to keep up with the stories. Amid this chaos, Spicer has defended Trump with multiple demonstrably false claims.
And what has been Spicer’s reward for putting his well-regarded reputation on the line? There are numerous reports that Trump is considering firing Spicer. Sanders’ turns behind the podium intensified those rumors, although Spicer’s absence was the result of previously planned Naval Reserve duty.
Spicer did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News about his future in the administration or his relationship with Sanders. Both Spicer and Sanders are accompanying Trump on his marathon first foreign trip.
Whether or not Sanders gets a promotion, she is clearly one of Trump’s top surrogates. And some of her colleagues in the conservative world see that as a dangerous and unenviable occupation.
Tim Miller, a political operative who has worked as a spokesman for the Republican National Committee and one of Trump’s 2016 GOP primary rivals, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, told Yahoo News he’s aware of “plenty of people out there who have turned down opportunities to work in the communications department at the White House because they respected their [own] credibility.”
“I think that as long as the president is going to put his spokespeople in this situation where they need to advance preposterous lies in order to prove their loyalty, I don’t know why anyone would want the job,” Miller said.
At the podium, Sanders displays sweetness along with a sharp edge. For her first on-camera briefing on May 5, she wore a neon-pink dress and followed up her initial announcement with a joke to break the ice before the flood of questions began.
“Finally, on a much lighter note, I wanted to make sure to note that everyone at the Department of Interior is having their first ever Bring Your Dog to Work Day, becoming the first federal department to go dog-friendly,” she said with evident enjoyment.
“If anyone is up for a field trip later, just let me know, because I’m pretty sure that everybody here could use a little stress reliever,” said Sanders.
The first reporter she called on responded with “welcome to the podium.”
“Thank you,” Sanders said beaming. “Does that mean you’re going to be super nice today right?”
Those closest to Sanders describe her as someone whose life has prepared her well for a fight. Sanders, who is 34 years old, was, quite literally, born into politics. She is the only daughter of the former Arkansas governor and two-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. In a phone conversation with Yahoo News, Huckabee said he’s “very proud” to see his daughter facing off against the relentless White House press corps.
“I especially enjoy watching her hold her own and having such confidence. I mean she goes into that press room, like, wearing Lady Gaga’s meat suit and walking over to the zoo in the tiger cage,” Huckabee said with a laugh. “But she handles herself, I think, very well.”
Huckabee said Sanders displayed early interest in political campaigning and strategizing.
“From the time she was just a little kid … when other elementary school kids were outside playing chase and jumping rope, she was sitting at the kitchen table listening to Dick Morris do poll results and analyzing cross-tabs,” said Huckabee.
Huckabee credits his daughter with having a toughness he attributes to her childhood in the political spotlight and “growing up with two older brothers who weren’t always gentle with her.”
One of those brothers, David, said Sanders had to develop a thick skin when the family moved from Texarkana, Ark., to the state capital, Little Rock, after Huckabee became governor in 1996. Huckabee’s rise was something of a shock. He became lieutenant governor in a major upset. It was mostly a ceremonial position, and he didn’t bother uprooting his family for it. However, he ended up in the governor’s mansion after his Democratic predecessor was convicted of arranging fraudulent loans linked to the Whitewater scandal. The move came just as Sanders was set to start high school, and, David said, along with the state’s political establishment, most of the new neighbors were Democrats.
“There was a lot of hostility” to the Republican newcomers.
But Sanders flourished. As a high school senior, she was voted “most outstanding in service,” and the yearbook shows she participated in a number of class organizations, including “Quill and Scroll,” which was identified as “the international honorary society for high school journalists.” The yearbook noted membership in the society was reserved for students “in the upper third of their class scholastically” who were “recommended by their journalism teacher.”
Sanders told Yahoo News she has no memory of doing journalism in high school.
According to David, Sanders was something of a daddy’s girl. He described her simply as “the chosen one” in their family. Mike Huckabee, who was a pastor before running for office, doesn’t dispute the characterization.
“She is the only girl, and the youngest, and unquestionably spoiled,” he said.
Sanders didn’t go far away from her family for college. She attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. It’s about 70 miles away from the governor’s mansion. The trip led to Sanders’ first adult political battle. It was against her father.
In 2002, both of Sanders’ parents were on the ballot in Arkansas. Her father was up for reelection, and her mother, Janet, was running for secretary of state. A local judge in Arkadelphia voided the ballots from 912 out-of-town students, including Sanders. The students filed a lawsuit with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Sanders was one of the lead plaintiffs. Her father was, technically, the defendant.
“She sued me because I encouraged her to,” Huckabee said. “And I encouraged her to go to the ACLU. I said, ‘Normally, I hate those people, but this is a case they will do.’”
A judge ruled in favor of the students.
After college, Sanders began her career as a political operative in earnest. She worked on President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign and was one of the top advisers for her father’s 2008 White House bid.
For Huckabee, his daughter was invaluable because she was one of the few people who was “utterly comfortable” telling him he made a mistake. On her father’s campaign, Sanders supervised multiple staffers and volunteers in the field while doing everything from blogging to debate prep.
Sanders was already deploying the blend of humor and disdain that she would go on to use behind the White House podium. In December 2007, the Chicago Tribune quoted her firing back at a Democratic operative who visited an event at a shopping center and questioned whether Huckabee had enough resources to win the Republican nomination for president.
“He knows that from one visit to the mall?” Sanders quipped.
Several people who’ve worked with Sanders attribute her flair for cheerful scorn to her Southern roots.
“It’s somewhat typical of Southern women who, in many ways, grow up and have to be … tender outside but tough on the inside,” Huckabee explained. “And I’ve always said, when a Southern woman starts a sentence with ‘Bless your heart,’ you better be ready, because you’re about to be filleted.”
In 2012, Sanders worked for Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign. The former Minnesota governor took note of Sanders’ ability to be “both strong and likable” and said it has served her well as a White House spokeswoman.
“She … has difficult interactions with journalists, and that’s part of the grand journalistic tradition,” Pawlenty said, adding that “she does it in a way that’s likable yet strong, and so I think that’s the perfect combination for that role.”
Sanders has earned rave reviews for her campaign work. Veteran political consultant Ed Rollins, who was Huckabee’s 2008 campaign chairman, described her as “a first-rate operative” and “the No. 1 draft choice” for any race he “was ever involved in.” Pawlenty praised her as “just terrific.”
“I just think she’s going to grow up to be a big player in politics,” predicted Rollins. “I would not be shocked if she ended up going back and running for something someday.”
Sanders also found love on the trail. She married another operative, Bryan Sanders, whom she met when he worked on her father’s campaign. The pair have three children together. Those who know Sanders see Bryan’s political experience as an asset to their relationship, since it helps him understand her demanding and unpredictable White House schedule.
In addition to her political consulting, Sanders worked at the Department of Education during the administration of President George W. Bush. She came onboard the Trump campaign early last year, a few weeks after her father ended his own brief flirtation with the race.
“I have great respect for Gov. Mike Huckabee, and we have a mutual admiration for our wonderful families. It is great to have his daughter, Sarah, join the campaign,” Trump said in a statement.
At the time, Trump was trying to woo evangelicals, who have long been a part of Huckabee’s base. Sanders nodded to religious Christians in her statement about deciding to join his campaign.
“Mr. Trump is pro-life, pro-marriage and will appoint conservatives to the courts,” she said.
Amid the constant infighting that plagued Trump’s White House bid, Sanders managed to be widely liked. She also has developed a good relationship with Trump and gets face time with him in the Oval Office.
When she’s not in the room with Trump or filling in for Spicer, Sanders can generally be found in her own office, which is just outside the press secretary’s. Surrounded by her children’s artwork, Sanders fields questions from a steady stream of reporters and staffers who seek her counsel. On May 11, after her second on-camera briefing, Sanders found her father waiting outside. She brought Huckabee to the inner sanctum to meet with the president.
“Every time I talk to him, he’ll say, ‘Huckabee, I like you. You’re a great guy. You’re terrific, but your daughter, she’s so much better. She’s so much better,’” Huckabee said of Trump.
The press corps have also complimented Sanders for managing to put a friendlier face on Trump’s long-running feud with the media. During Sanders’ second briefing, on May 10, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman tweeted about how it was a departure from Spicer’s more combative approach.
“Sanders obfuscates same as Spicer. Also does it without making deeply personal, petty, condescending,” Haberman wrote.
But as Spicer’s shaky status shows, Trump is infamously fickle. In an administration split into several warring factions, no staffer’s position is truly secure. And earning the president’s approval can cost credibility.
Sanders’ second on-camera briefing was the first one following the news of Comey’s firing. A pack of reporters crowded the briefing room to ask questions about the blockbuster announcement.
“Light crowd,” Sander deadpanned.
The trouble came for Sanders when she offered reporters the “tick tock,” briefing room slang for the White House’s version of the moments leading up to the big news. Like Spicer and Vice President Mike Pence before her, Sanders insisted Trump decided to fire Comey after deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein came to the president with a recommendation. But in an interview with NBC News the next day, Trump insisted he had already decided to get rid of Comey and would have done so “regardless of recommendation.” This contradiction led to extensive clarifications and questions about credibility in the briefing room.
While Sanders’ start behind the podium was well-received, this discrepancy was a clear stumble. Miller, the Republican operative who said he knew colleagues who rejected White House communications jobs, suggested it overshadowed Sanders’ prior performance.
“I was a little confused by the positive reviews given that she went out with a preposterous lie about why President Trump fired James Comey,” said Miller.
Rollins, the consultant who worked with Sanders on her father’s campaign, said she and Spicer have “two of the toughest jobs in this White House.”
“You’re dealing with all type A personalities in the media, you know, the very best in the media. It’s an adversarial role. And this is not a White House that’s always been on the same page, because they don’t know where the president is and because he’s not always on the same page.”
A press deputy from the second Bush administration similarly said Spicer and Sanders are in a very difficult position and blamed it squarely on Trump.
“Whatever is happening there in the press office is a symptom of a larger issue of how the president of the United States comports himself,” said the deputy. “When your boss is making it difficult and nearly impossible for you to stand at the podium and take all of those questions, it becomes a nearly impossible task.”
The deputy, who requested anonymity due to having moved on to a corporate job, cited several reasons it’s difficult to represent Trump in the briefing room. First, the deputy said it’s essential for press staff to know the president’s “track record” on various issues to understand their “perspective” and “philosophy.” This is trickier with Trump since he has no prior political experience. The deputy also noted Trump’s propensity to give “mixed answers” and change his story as he did in the wake of Comey’s firing.
“When you’re out on a limb saying one thing to try to bolster the president’s position and he personally saws the limb off behind you, it makes it so hard to do your job,” the deputy said.
There is something of a fraternity of former White House press secretaries and staffers that crosses party lines. Many of them are in touch, and the Trump team’s performance is a prime topic of conversation, the deputy said, adding that the West Wing veterans have a uniform reaction to Spicer and Sanders.
“It’s sympathy,” said the deputy.
Sanders declined to be interviewed for this story, but she did answer one key question. Is she concerned working for Trump will cost her credibility? Sitting in an office decorated with her children’s artwork, Sanders let loose something between a laugh and an exasperated sigh as she dismissed the question.
“I’m not,” she huffed.
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