When President Donald Trump announced that Sarah Sanders would be departing her job as White House press secretary in June 2019, he urged her to run for governor of Arkansas. “She would be fantastic,” Trump tweeted at the time.
“I took on the media, the radical left and their ‘cancel culture,’ and I won. As governor, I will be your voice, and never let them silence you,” Sanders said in the announcement.
Sanders, a 38-year-old Arkansas native and daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), managed her father’s unsuccessful presidential run in 2016 before joining Trump’s campaign as senior communications adviser. She also served as a spokeswoman during Trump’s first presidential campaign.
At the White House, she first worked as the top deputy to Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, until he resigned in July 2017, when she assumed his role. She was the first working mother and only the third woman to serve as White House press secretary, as reported by the Associated Press.
During her early days, some praised her calm demeanor in then-daily briefings with the press — a stark contrast to Spicer. But Sanders soon clashed with reporters, passionately defending Trump while confronting the press — even when the information she provided was, at times, false.
One such instance earned a note in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the election. In May 2017, Sanders claimed that the White House had heard from “countless members of the FBI” supporting Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. She doubled down on the claim the next day, insisting that supportive emails and texts had flown in.
In Mueller’s report, though, she said under oath that the claim was a “slip of the tongue.”
Despite Sanders’s adversarial relationship with most reporters, some members of the White House press corps stood by her when comedian Michelle Wolf roasted her at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, including with some jokes that appeared to bash Sanders’s physical appearance.
Sanders, who sat at a head table, stared blankly at Wolf, while other Republicans said they walked out of the room in support. Some journalists, like New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, praised Sanders’s response, calling it “impressive.”
But as Sanders continued her passionate defenses of Trump, she became so controversial that two months later, she was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant where she was having dinner. Stephanie Wilkinson, the co-owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., asked her to leave, noting that some gay employees at the restaurant were uncomfortable with serving her given her role backing Trump’s policies, including barring transgender people from the military.
Near the end of her tenure, after the release of the Mueller report, her once-daily news briefings were curtailed, giving way to long stretches of silence. Sanders, who had also become well-known for not answering emails or calls to her office seeking comment, sometimes held sessions with reporters on a White House driveway and often appeared on Fox News. She once went 94 days without a formal press briefing.
Then, after 23 months on the job, she left in June 2019 and returned to Arkansas. Months after leaving her role, Sanders hinted that she planned to mount a political campaign.
“There are two types of people who run for office,” Sanders told the Times in November 2019. “People that are called and people that just want to be a senator or governor. I feel like I’ve been called.”
Her announcement on Monday thrusts her into a race to replace Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who is term-limited and cannot seek reelection in 2022. Sanders will run against Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge in the Republican primary. No Democrats have formally announced their candidacy.
Although Trump’s popularity has fallen to all-time low numbers following the Jan. 6 riots, the former president has remained popular in Arkansas.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.