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Opinion Sarah Sanders chooses Fox News over briefings

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders outside the West Wing of the White House on May 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders didn’t make much news Wednesday morning when she spoke with the “Fox & Friends” crew about current affairs. She bashed Democrats; she spoke of “great progress” on the border wall; she spoke about a meeting that President Trump would host later Wednesday with Democratic congressional leaders.

“I don’t want to get too far ahead of the president’s meeting,” said Sanders to a question from co-host Brian Kilmeade regarding the agenda.

That sounds like the sort of answer that a press secretary would offer in the White House briefing room, before 50-odd correspondents from all manner of news organizations. Yet Sanders hasn’t appeared in that context since March 11 — or 72 days. That’s another record. The thoroughly democratic tradition of the White House briefing is all but extinct.

Post media critic Erik Wemple went to Scottsdale, Ariz., to speak with Fox News superfans in line to attend the Fox Nation “inaugural summit.“ (Video: Erik Wemple/The Washington Post)

During the ongoing no-briefing skid, Sanders has appeared at least 12 times on various Fox News programs, as follows: March 12 (“Outnumbered Overtime”), March 25 (“America’s Newsroom”), April 2 (“America’s Newsroom”), April 4 (“Fox & Friends”), April 14 (“Fox News Sunday”), April 18 (“Hannity”), April 22 (“Fox & Friends”), April 29 (“Fox & Friends”), May 2 (“America’s Newsroom”), May 4 (“Watters’ World”), May 16 (“Fox & Friends”) and May 22 (“Fox & Friends”). Sanders has also appeared on NBC’s “Today” and ABC News’s “Good Morning America,” as well as CNN, CBS News and Sinclair.

As noted previously in this space, White House reporters use Sanders’s appearances on Fox News as an opportunity of sorts: As she walks back from her appearances on the White House grounds, they gather and wait with their questions. To her credit, Sanders often stops and engages. Even as the briefings have gone away, she has claimed that she’s still answering questions from the media every day. President Trump, too, is famous for his frequent question-and-answer sessions with reporters, far outpacing several predecessors in this category.

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Seven of Sanders’s Fox News appearances postdate the release of the Mueller report, which contained a passage indicating that the then-deputy press secretary had lied about President Trump’s May 2017 firing of James B. Comey. “Countless” FBI officials, said Sanders, supported the firing — a line that provided political cover for Trump’s abrupt personnel move. Well, that “countless” reference was a “slip of the tongue,” Sanders told Mueller’s team. The Mueller report also said this: “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.”

Fox News host Sean Hannity helped Sanders make this particular controversy vanish, at least for Fox News viewers. In an April 18 chat with Sanders, Hannity stumbled and stammered in a transparent bid to minimize the offense of lying to the American people. It was a moment that propaganda historians should bookmark:

HANNITY: Let me ask you this, so the media is attacking you today because I guess in the testimony you gave you had said you’re FBI — a lot of the FBI people you know were — well, I can tell you. Let me put it this way. Every FBI rank and file guy, the 99.9 percent I know have all thanked me. Because they’re hurt their rep. This is the premier law enforcement agency in the world, just like our intelligence community — same thing. The premier intelligence community in the world. They were hurt by a few at the top and they’re angry about it. And you said that. But explain.
SANDERS: Absolutely. Look, I acknowledged that I had a slip of the tongue when I used the word “countless,” but it’s not untrue. And certainly, you just echoed exactly the sentiment and the point that I was making is that a number of both current and former FBI agents agreed with the president.

Another extraordinary moment on Sanders’s recent Fox News tour occurred on the May 4 edition of Jesse Watters’s weekend show. Apparently Watters hadn’t realized that Sanders had stopped doing briefings, because he asked this question:

WATTERS: You looking forward to the next press briefing? I mean, I could just see you out there. Anytime they say anything, you say how are you supposed to believe the thing you guys say, you guys lied about collusion for two years?

Fox News bubble? Did Watters not realize that the Mueller report nailed Sanders in plain language for lying to the press?

In any case, Sanders responded:

SANDERS: Yes, exactly. Look, we take questions from the press every single day. I took questions from reporters yesterday morning for quite a bit of time and continue to do that. Happy to do it anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

Bolding added to highlight another lie: The White House Correspondents’ Association, and plenty of other voices, have urged Sanders to relaunch regular briefings. The response has been more Fox News appearances.

In swapping briefings for Fox News, Sanders is merely modeling the behavior of her boss. As of May 10, reported Media Matters for America, 92 percent of President Trump’s nationally televised interviews in 2019 have taken place on Fox News/Fox Business, a boost from 67 percent in 2017-2018. (In response to a request from the Erik Wemple Blog, Media Matters also found a few recent Sanders appearances on Fox News that weren’t on our original list).

There’s no way that the American public can forthwith appreciate the damage done by a White House that is ditching the press en masse for one favored outlet. Only time will reveal whether the strategy helps Trump by deepening support among his most stalwart followers, or whether it hurts him by limiting his ability to get his message to the entire United States. All that’s clear now is that this is a drastic step that was once unthinkable, and that these days passes with less and less notice. Who knows — maybe Trump’s successor will harden the new normal into the permanent normal.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: I asked Democratic candidates if they’d restore press briefings. Here’s what they said.

The Post’s View: The White House daily briefings are disappearing — as are democratic norms

Erik Wemple: Ten takeaways from Sarah Sanders’s disappearance from White House briefings

Erik Wemple: Sarah Sanders says reporters are ‘angry’ in the briefing room. Here are 34 possible explanations.

Dana Milbank: The White House revoked my press pass. It’s not just me — it’s curtailing access for all journalists.