White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday sounded more like the hapless Sean Spicer as she twisted and turned trying to explain away the administration’s reaction to Rob Porter’s alleged physical abuse of two ex-wives. Since the White House has not agreed upon one narrative, she hemmed and hawed trying to untangle the series of events:
Sanders: Look, we learned of the extent of the situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening, and within 24 hours, his resignation had been accepted and announced.
We announced a transition was going to happen, and within hours, it did. The president and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly. Above all, the president supports victims of domestic violence and believes everyone should be treated fairly and with due process.
We’ve addressed this situation extensively, and we have nothing more to add at this time on that topic.
Reporter: The allegations that were raised against him would make him a prime candidate for blackmail, which would leave any responsible person at the FBI to come to the White House to say, “Just want to let you know, this person will likely never get a permanent security clearance.” Was that concern ever raised to anyone here at the White House?
Sanders: As I know [White House spokesman Raj Shah] addressed last week, we let the process play out. It was ongoing, hadn’t been completed. And beyond that, and the statement I just gave you, I don’t have anything else to add.
Notice that the time it took John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to act on the photos depicting one of Porter’s abused wives went from 40 minutes to 24 hours. The reporters tried again later in the press briefing with no success:
Reporter: Tuesday night, when the initial story came out, the White House praises Rob Porter. Wednesday morning, photos come out. The White House stands by its statement. Wednesday afternoon, the White House continues to praise Rob Porter. And Chief of Staff John Kelly says he acted 40 minutes within knowing the allegations. Can you explain that?
Sanders: As I said — and I’m going to repeat what I said earlier — that we had learned of this situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening, and within 24 hours, his resignation had been accepted and announced. We announced a transition was going to happen, and within hours, it did.
And in terms of timeline, I don’t have anything else to add.
Reporter: The chief of staff said 40 minutes. I don’t understand that. Can you explain that?
Sanders: I can tell you that a conversation took place within 40 minutes. And beyond that, I really don’t have anything else to add.
Sanders had even less success trying to explain why President Trump always takes the side of the accused male (e.g., Roy Moore, Mike Tyson, Bill O’Reilly, Corey Lewandowski and Porter). Sanders and the reporters went round and round. Why doesn’t he say something definitive himself about abuse? Why does he never seem to recognize the impact on the victim, just on the accused? Sanders tried platitudes, evasion and dissembling:
Reporter: Does the president still wish Rob Porter well? Does he still believe that he wants him to have a great career ahead of him? Because that would seem —
Sanders: I think the president of the United States hopes that all Americans can be successful in whatever they do. And if they’ve had any issues in the past — I’m not confirming or denying one way or the other — but if they do, the president wants success for all Americans, and that he was elected to serve all Americans, and he hopes for the best for all American citizens across the country. Jim?
Reporter: What about the president’s tweet over the weekend? “People’s lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” It seems like the president was believing Mr. Porter as opposed to his alleged victims. Why did the president tweet that over the weekend? Why is he seemingly defending Mr. Porter publicly? Is it because he has faced his own allegations? Is there some sensitivity there? Is that why that is?
Sanders: Look, as I just said, and I’ll repeat it again, the president and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously, and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly. He certainly supports the victims of domestic violence above all else, and believes that everyone should be treated fairly and with due process. . . . The president is simply saying that there should be a due process that should be followed and looked at.
Reporter: The vice president said he was appalled by the allegations. Why did the president not use this as an opportunity to say something like that? Why does he have to speak through you?
Sanders: The president has been clear multiple times, through myself and others within the administration, that we condemn domestic violence in all forms.
Reporter: He has not said it. Why has he not said it?
Sanders: I’m the spokesperson for the White House and for the president, and I’m saying it to you right now.
Trump doesn’t say anything because he either thinks people will start believing his accusers, or because he thinks women are liars, or because he can never admit he backed or hired or befriended an abuser (actually, an alarming number of them). Maybe it’s all three.
The worst part of Sanders’s performance was the effort to blame the media for the administration’s own actions in endangering national security. Asked why so many people are allowed access with no official clearance, Sanders came up with this: “We take every precaution possible to protect classified information and certainly to protect national security. It’s the president’s number one priority, is protecting the citizens of this country. It’s why we spend every single day doing everything we can to do that. And I think if anyone is publishing or putting out publicly classified information it’s members of the press, not the White House.”
That, even for her, is beyond the pale. It’s the White House that has the obligation to protect secrets (not only so they aren’t publicly released but because they might be secretly passed to our enemies). If it’s all on the press, why have a clearance process at all?
Most of all, this bit reeks of hypocrisy. As my colleague Philip Bump writes, “This is a president who was elected specifically on criticisms of his opponent’s handling of classified material. Remember ‘lock her up’? Hillary Clinton was disparaged by Trump and his allies above all else because of their criticisms of her handling of material she received as secretary of state. ” At least Hillary Clinton never gave code-word top-secret information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office.
All in all, the White House’s handling of this debacle, which has dragged on for nearly a week, demonstrates that, if anything, the White House under Kelly is no more honest, disciplined and coherent than it was under Reince Priebus. We’ve given up expecting honesty from this White House, but at least, staff members should get on the same page so as to stop humiliating themselves.