She would claim to represent the truth on behalf of a president who lies.
She did it disrespectfully and apparently without shame or an understanding of what the role of White House press secretary should be.
She misled reporters or tried to, and through them, misled the American people. And all with her distinctive curled-lip disdain.
Thus, she delivered on what New York University professor Jay Rosen has called the “brand promise” of the Trump administration’s treatment of the press: “Watch, we will put these people down for you.”
Her quintessential moment came in the May 11, 2017, White House press briefing in which she was skeptically questioned by Michael Shear of the New York Times about her statements that she’d heard from “countless” FBI employees about how grateful they were that Trump had fired the agency’s director, James B. Comey.
She replied without a shred of doubt, and as if Shear were the dumbest guy she’d ever seen.
“Between, like, email, text messages, absolutely. Yes,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to get into a numbers game. I mean, I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said that they’re very happy with the president’s decision.”
Eventually, she was forced, under oath, to admit that this was made-up nonsense.
The report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III: “Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from ‘countless members of the FBI’ was a ‘slip of the tongue.’ . . . She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made ‘in the heat of the moment’ that was not founded on anything.”
Utterly unfounded, but insisted on as if it were carved on tablets, and don’t you dare doubt it. That is a pretty good description of gaslighting.
And gaslighting was a Sanders specialty, day in and day out. (After a while, of course, that became week in and week out, then month in and month out, and finally, not at all, as the once-daily briefings were phased out. The last one was more than 90 days ago.)
“Sanders failed at all aspects of the job,” Joe Lockhart, press secretary for President Bill Clinton, told me Thursday.
Lockhart elaborated: “She didn’t keep the public informed, including canceling the briefings, she was not honest, according to her own testimony to the special counsel, and she stood by and allowed the normalization of labeling the press the enemy of the people.”
In August, CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged Sanders publicly on Trump’s disparagement of the press.
“It would be a good thing if you were to state right here, at this briefing, that the press — the people who are gathered in this room right now, doing their jobs every day . . . are not the enemy of the people,” Acosta said. “I think we deserve that.”
Sanders refused, deflecting to say that she had suffered media criticism, putting her in danger. At other times, she parroted the president with more destructive language: Some media people were not enemies of the people — only the “fake news” types. (In Trump World, fake news is almost always coverage that reflects poorly on the president.)
And always, with Sanders, the sneering denials of the obvious:
In late 2017, for instance, Trump called Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) “a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them).”
Asked in the briefing about what sounded, in that tweet, a lot like sexual innuendo, Sanders went straight to gaslighting, telling the reporter, “Your mind is in the gutter.”
Undoubtedly, there were media people who enjoyed a friendly relationship with Sanders behind the scenes.
Some journalists defended her when she was mocked by comic Michelle Wolf at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
That’s all part of access journalism, mixed with some garden-variety humanity, and it shouldn’t matter a whit in any true evaluation of how she performed.
The role of press secretary is, at its core, a public-facing one.
On that stage — whether in the briefing room or in an informal driveway gaggle with reporters — Sanders was set up to fail by a president who doesn’t value the truth or the press.
And oh, how she rose to that challenge.
Announcing her exit, Trump tweeted warm praise: “She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job.”
Since incredible literally means “impossible to believe,” he got that part exactly right.