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Opinion ‘You’re a parent’: Reporter presses Sarah Huckabee Sanders on immigration

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders engaged in a heated exchange with reporters in the wake of thousands of immigrant families being separated. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hasn’t been reticent about her life as a working mother. “As a working mom, it’s not lost on me what a great honor and privilege it is to stand here at the podium,” Sanders said last July. Speaking about one of her children, she added, “Scarlett and every little girl in America should grow up in a country that — if we deliver on the president’s agenda better jobs, better health care and a better tax system — incentivizes women to work and raise children.”

If Sanders wants to invoke her children, so can White House reporters, or at least that appears to be the thinking of Brian Karem, one of those Washington people with three titles: executive editor of Sentinel Newspapers, Playboy White House correspondent and CNN political analyst.

In the brief session Thursday, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta asked Sanders about the practice of separating children from their parents as they arrive at the southern border of the United States: “The attorney general earlier today said that somehow there’s justification for this in the Bible. Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?” Sanders had no good reply, insisting she wasn’t aware of Jeff Sessions’s comments.

Worse, Sanders veered into darkness. “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,” she said, to several retorts from Acosta. Continuing, Sanders attempted to blame the situation on Democrats, who allegedly “refuse to close” loopholes in the law. “It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”

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Back and forth it went. One reporter noted, “There is no law that requires that families be separated at the border. … Why did the administration find that this was necessary?”

At this point, Sanders took another lap through her talking points, prompting Karem to bust in. “You’re a parent. Don’t you have any empathy? Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent! Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through?” said Karem, who memorably ripped into Sanders a year ago over the administration’s media attacks. “They have less than you do. Sarah, come on, seriously. Seriously.”

“Brian, God, settle down. I’m trying to be serious but I’m not going to have you yell out of turn,” said Sanders.

Karem: “These people have nothing.”

Sanders: “Hey, Brian, I know you want to get some more TV time, but that’s not what this is about. … Go ahead, Jill.”

Karem: “It’s not about that. … It’s a serious question. These people have nothing. They come to the border with nothing, and they throw children in cages. You’re a parent, you’re a parent of young children. Don’t you have any empathy for what they go through?”

Sanders stood stern, moving on to the next question — which was about Russia.

Over her time at the podium, Sanders has faced a number of tough questions: about the Russia investigation, about the activities of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, about Trump’s tweets and so on.

Compared with those, Karem’s inquiry looks like a softball. Do you have empathy for children who are torn from their parents? How hard is that? Way too hard for Sanders. Never let anyone tell you that White House briefings are pointless.

At the end, Sanders commented on a CBS News report that she was eyeing a departure from the White House. “As I stated last night in a tweet, I think CBS got a little ahead of their skis, particularly since they put out a story about my thinking without ever actually talking to me. Seems that would be a little bit problematic. In terms of personnel announcements, I don’t have any to make. I can tell you that I show up here every day. I love my job. I’m glad to work for the president. And each and every day, I’ll pray for clarity and discernment on what my future looks like. Right now, I think the country looks pretty good and I’m glad to get to be a part of that process and I’m going to continue to do my job.”

A job, that is, whose contours apparently include questioning the motives of a reporter who presses a government official about a matter of core human concern. If that’s really how Sanders views her role, let’s hope that clarity and discernment point to a future in the private sector.