White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Asked whether her boss paid hush money to multiple women, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I’m not aware of any other activity, but I would refer you to Rudy Giuliani to respond to any of those questions or anybody else on the president’s outside counsel.” Asked essentially the same question, she replied, “Again, I’m not aware of anything like that. But I would refer to the president’s outside counsel.” How does President Trump feel about Rudy Giuliani? “I didn’t speak with him specifically about his feelings about it, but certainly feels that he’s an added member — added valued member to his outside special counsel,” she answered. Will Trump plead the Fifth? Talk to the “outside special counsel,” she said. (I think she meant Trump’s outside attorneys.) Did Trump aides hire an Israeli firm to find dirt on Obama officials who worked on the Iran deal? “I’m not aware of anything on that front,” she said.

Not that I’m aware of. I haven’t spoken to the president. Talk to the lawyers. She might as well just say, “Who the heck knows?” or “Ya got me!” Sanders has apparently figured out not to take to the bank — or the press room — what Trump tells her. She seems to have learned that unless she wants to be seen as a liar, she’s simply going to have to weave and bob, and keep her head down and her lips pursed. Perhaps the media should start asking her:

  • Are you still asking Trump about these issues, or have you given up?
  • If you cannot say one way or another on these questions, are you saying it’s within the realm of possibility that Trump paid off other women, will plead the Fifth, etc.?
  • How can you do your job if you do not ask the president about important matters and convey with confidence his responses to the American people?
  • Are you concerned that you personally will be implicated in a conspiracy to obstruct justice?
  • Have you consulted counsel as to what you can no longer say definitively to the media?
  • Looking back on your interactions with members of the media, did you wittingly or unwittingly mislead them? Will you come clean on those instances and correct the record?
  • Why should we believe what you say?
  • Last August you said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to lie from the podium or any other place.” Does that go for the president as well? Is it appropriate to convey someone else’s lies?

These are not insignificant inquiries. The press secretary is there to convey accurately the president’s understanding, views and positions. If the president cannot authoritatively tell Sanders what he knows, what he thinks and where he stands on policy matters, then it is fair to say he’s incapable of leveling with the American people. He is, in a word, untrustworthy.

Sanders’s reluctance to speak definitively for the president suggests that she is not the person to whom the media should be talking. This is not a criticism of her. To the contrary, throwing in the towel on trying to speak truthfully for the president evidences the capacity for shame, something we previously have not seen from her. (Now, if she would stop repeating the president’s “fake news” accusation and concede her own role in putting out false information, she might really earn Americans’ respect.) She is as much a prop as members of the media are in the post-truth White House.

And we then come to the nub of the problem, which is far more serious than Sanders’s credibility or even the progress of the Russia investigation. Democracies disconnected from truth cannot function. If we cannot believe what democratic leaders say and cannot hold them accountable for their words and actions, then the will of the people is no longer being heard. And that, as much as Trump’s attacks on the courts, the FBI and other institutions, poses a grave threat to democratic self-rule. Lying is not simply a moral failing for elected officials; it is a violation of their mandate to serve the people who sent them into office. In usurping the truth, they improperly seize power from the people in order to do as they wish.

Serial lying’s incompatibility with representative democracy is why, quite simply, Americans have to vote out the liars and make truth-telling a fundamental requirement for office.