Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to square an impossible circle on Thursday. It didn’t help that her boss, President Trump, got in her way.
With White House press secretary Sean Spicer sidelined, Sanders, Spicer’s deputy, has spent three days in the barrel trying to explain why the president fired FBI Director James B. Comey.
That’s been no easy task. On Wednesday, Sanders told White House reporters that the president had done so on the recommendation of his deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein. Trump himself had claimed as much in a letter to Comey relieving him of his job.
Except then on Thursday, Trump told NBC News that he would have fired Comey “regardless” of the recommendation.
Which forced Sanders to, um, clarify what she’d said the day before. Pressed by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl whether she was “in the dark” about Trump’s actions, Sanders acknowledged that she might have been. “I think it’s pretty simple,” she said. “I hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly with the president. I’d had several conversations with him, but I didn’t ask that question directly, ‘Had you already made that decision?’ ”
But never mind, she argued, dismissing the contradictory stories as “semantics” since Trump and Rosenstein agreed on the need to dump Comey.
It was an inauspicious moment in the spotlight for Sanders, who typically plays the understudy to Spicer. She stepped in to become the White House’s chief spokesperson this week after Spicer took leave to fulfill a Navy Reserve commitment at the Pentagon.
Among her other assertions, she told reporters Thursday that the FBI’s rank-and-file employees had lost faith in Comey’s management of the agency. That one raised eyebrows, too; only two hours earlier, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Comey enjoyed “broad support” inside the bureau. Sanders told the press that she’d heard otherwise.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” she said.
The spin from Sanders — whose official title is principal deputy press secretary — may not have been wholly different from what you might have expected from Spicer. But her manner certainly was. In two days of briefings, Sanders has kept her answers short and crisp, her voice steady and calm and inflected with her Arkansas upbringing. She has rarely interrupted her questioners with Spicer-ian interjections of “Hold on!” — lending a somewhat less combative and adversarial quality to the briefings.
Sanders, 34, is the daughter of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and two-time Republican presidential candidate. Her official baptism in politics came through her father; as a college student, she was the field coordinator for his 2002 reelection campaign.
She subsequently worked for Republican candidates, including for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s unsuccessful presidential run in 2012, and the successful 2014 Senate campaign of Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
She became a senior adviser to Trump in 2016 after managing her father’s second presidential bid, which attracted just one delegate.
Sanders, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, first tried out her talking points about Comey on Tuesday night. This was shortly after the White House communications staff was caught so far off guard by the news that Spicer briefly ducked behind White House shrubbery to avoid talking with reporters.
Her relative poise in the face of a skeptical news media immediately gave rise to speculation among journalists that Sanders was in line to replace Spicer as Trump’s chief spokesperson. There’s nothing to support that notion, but that didn’t stop CNN from mulling over the possibility.
Another kind of buzz started up Wednesday on Twitter: Just as comedian Melissa McCarthy has created a franchise by parodying Spicer on “Saturday Night Live,” Sanders’s newly elevated profile must mean that cast member Cecily Strong (who resembles Sanders) is surely going to play her on Saturday’s program.
Sanders took her first crack at heading off the metastasizing criticism of Comey’s firing during an interview Tuesday evening on Tucker Carlson’s program on Fox News Channel, a safe venue.
“My gosh, Tucker,” she said, with mild pique, “when are [critics] going to let that go?” she said of the Russia investigation. “It’s been going on for nearly a year. Frankly, it’s kind of getting absurd. There’s nothing there. We’ve heard that time and time again. . . . There is no ‘there’ there. It’s time to move on.”
Carlson didn’t challenge her, but the same general line didn’t work so well on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday.
Sanders first claimed that host Joe Scarborough had once said that there was no evidence tying Trump’s campaign to the Russian government, bringing a swift retort from Scarborough.
“I said there’s no obvious evidence of collusion out there right now,” he said. “If there were that obvious evidence of collusion, it would have already been leaked by now. I also said there have to be in-depth investigations because it may take, I think, probably an independent prosecutor to figure out the financial ties between Donald Trump and Russia.”
He added, “I’m surprised you’re twisting my words.”
When Sanders proceeded to argue that committees in the House, the Senate and the FBI have looked into Trump’s Russia connection and “everyone comes to the same conclusion,” co-host Mika Brzezinski cut her off. Brzezinski noted that no such conclusion had been reached. “You’re not actually telling the truth right now,” she told Sanders.
After Thursday’s briefing, one White House reporter opined that Sanders had seriously harmed her credibility. But others say they generally like Sanders, who honed her messaging skills as a TV surrogate for Trump during the campaign.
“She’s remarkably poised for her age,” said one who, like several interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid crossing a key White House source. “She has her father’s sense of humor, which is a good thing. People who’ve held that job before are humorless.”
Another reporter noted on Wednesday that Sanders was dealt a poor hand but played it about as effectively as she could.
“You can only do so good of a job if you’re spinning on behalf of a president whose story changes minute to minute,” she said. “She remained calm. . . . She has a steadiness that Spicer evidently lacks.”
But that’s not to say the reporter is rooting for Sanders to replace Spicer. “He’s a very complex character, and he makes a lot of fun mistakes,” she said. “And you can see, on his face nearly every day, that he struggles with this job. . . . There’s a lot going on there, and so he’s a rich subject.”