Stepping to the lectern Wednesday in the briefing room, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders took a moment, unprompted, to weigh in on some important news: Her daughter, Scarlett, was turning 5.
“I get to wish Scarlett a happy birthday,” Sanders said with a smile, her remarks airing live on cable news networks. To the reporters in front of her, she added, “I think her first birthday wish would probably be that you guys are incredibly nice.”
Sanders’s bid to charm and disarm the White House media corps on a day when it was sniffing scandal over President Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey stood in sharp contrast to the style and tone of her boss, press secretary Sean Spicer, whose more combative and confrontational approach has turned him into a recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
By comparison, Sanders, 34, the deputy press secretary, comes across as folksy and friendlier, with a slower pace of speaking and the southern accent of her native Arkansas. (Her father is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a two-time unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.)
Sanders, who is filling in this week with Spicer away serving duty with the Navy Reserve, smiled more, kept her cool and didn’t trip over her words, as the occasionally tongue-tied Spicer sometimes does. At one point in the briefing, she offered another personal revelation after a reporter mistakenly referred to her daughter as “Charlotte.”
“'Gone With the Wind'” she exclaimed, suggesting that her daughter's name was inspired by the book's heroine Scarlett O’Hara, before gently chiding the reporter: “Come on, John.”
Yet lest she be mistaken solely as the sugar to balance the daily dose of Spicer, Sanders demonstrated during the 30-minute daily briefing a willingness to mix it up with reporters and engage in partisan attacks on Democrats, slipping in a few snarky asides along the way.
“Not to sound like a broken record,” she said when asked why Trump, who once expressed support for Comey, had changed his mind, “but since you guys keep asking the same questions, I guess it's only fair that I keep giving the same answers.”
On two occasions, Sanders cited what appeared to be a particularly evocative White House talking point to criticize Comey’s conduct during the 2016 campaign — when he held a news conference to discuss the FBI’s investigation of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for classified government information while she was secretary of state.
Comey “had essentially taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into the Department of Justice” by usurping the chain of command and holding the news conference without informing the attorney general’s office, Sanders said.
In another answer, she mocked the media for its obsession over the FBI’s investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian government operatives.
“Look, the FBI's doing a whole lot more than the Russia investigation,” she said. “I know everybody in this room and probably most of the media around the world would like to think that's the FBI's sole responsibility, but that's probably one of the smallest things that they've got going on their plate.”
Sanders, who made her first appearance at the briefing room lectern last week, has on several occasions conducted the in-flight “gaggle” with a small group of traveling media aboard Air Force One. And she has done numerous appearances on television, during the campaign and at the White House. But her baptism by fire at the lectern this week, amid the frenzy over the Comey affair, represents a more dramatic step into the spotlight.
She joined the Trump campaign in February 2016, after her father, whose presidential campaign she had helped manage, dropped out of the race. Sanders, a co-founder of Second Street Strategies, a political consulting firm in Little Rock, was involved in her father’s 2008 campaign and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid.
She arrived on Trump’s team just ahead of the Super Tuesday elections, which helped push Trump into a more commanding position in the race for the Republican nomination. Her husband, Bryan Sanders, is a Republican consultant who also worked on Huckabee’s 2016 campaign. They have three children, according to reports.
“I volunteered to join Mr. Trump's campaign because he is a champion of working families; not Washington-Wall Street elites,” she said in a statement at the time. “What makes Mr. Trump my choice for president is he will break the grip of the donor class on our government and make it accountable to working families again.”
In September, as Trump neared the general election and bulked up his staff, Sanders moved to the communications team. In a campaign filled with big personalities, Sanders mostly stayed in the background. At the White House she works in a small office next to Spicer’s more spacious digs, down the hall from the Oval Office.
About 30 minutes into the briefing Wednesday, an aide passed a note to Sanders, and she quickly called an end to the proceedings. It’s not clear what Trump thought of her performance, but she drew rave reviews from at least one viewer:
Best part of daughter Sarah at WH press brief? Mentioning my granddaughter Scarlett's 5th birthday today. The rest was great too of course!
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) May 10, 2017
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.