Herewith the first installment of a regular feature of the Erik Wemple Blog. Since March 11, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has disappeared from the lectern at the White House briefing room. Holding briefings is the central — and most visible — role of the press secretary. In light of Sanders’s lower profile these days, we decided to track her comings and goings with the “Sarah Sanders Watch.”
Item No. 1:
Last week, CNN host Jake Tapper highlighted a contrast between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The setting was Normandy and the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Using that sacred place as a backdrop, Trump chatted with Fox News host Laura Ingraham and engaged in his trademark pettiness. “But Nancy Pelosi — I call her ‘nervous Nancy’ — Nancy Pelosi doesn’t talk about it,” Trump told Ingraham. “Nancy Pelosi is a disaster, okay? She’s a disaster. And let her do what she wants. You know what? I think they’re in big trouble.”
Let Tapper handle the punchline:
Now, incidentally, when CNN caught up with Speaker Pelosi as she walked into Normandy and asked her about President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexico, this was Pelosi’s response: “I don’t talk about the president when we’re out of the country. That’s my principle. So I won’t go there.”
Who was to blame for this unseemly juxtaposition, for the president’s failure to leave small ball in his backyard?
Chris Christie, the Republican former New Jersey governor, had some ideas about the matter. Speaking to host George Stephanopoulos on Sunday’s “This Week” on ABC News, Christie blamed away:
Now, I also think, George, that the president’s press staff served him poorly in two instances in Europe — putting him front of Piers Morgan and putting him in that interview at that site with Laura Ingraham. That does not serve the president well. When you give that long period of time to do those kind of things, and they’re going to ask those kind of questions and follow up. That’s what — you know this, I know this, anybody knows who has been in political campaigns, and political situations.
The staff’s job is not to put the principal in a situation where you put him at greater risk of harm than greater risk of benefit. And I’d argue that when Sarah Sanders, whoever made those decisions, to put him in those positions, put him there, they ill-served him.
Does Christie really believe that Trump would ever listen to his “press staff” on how to handle the press?
Item No. 2:
Page 72 of Volume II of the Mueller report explains a great deal about Sanders, documenting the lengths to which Trump’s loyal press secretary will go in protecting her boss. Following the president’s firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017, Sanders, then the deputy press secretary, protested that “countless” rank-and-file FBI officers had indicated to the White House that they supported the move.
Nope, said Mueller: In her testimony to prosecutors, Sanders said the “countless” thing was a “slip of the tongue." A separate comment about Comey losing the confidence of FBI officers wasn’t “founded on anything,” Mueller concluded.
Shirish Dáte, senior White House correspondent for HuffPost, decided to run for the presidency of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) after reading Page 72. “We as an organization need to be more concerned about getting lied to as a matter of course — and the American public getting lied to, through us — than about access," writes Dáte in his platform for the election, which takes place in a few weeks.
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Dáte noted that, for years, the work of the WHCA has been oriented toward scholarships, the annual dinner and the day-in-day-out logistics of covering the White House. “That’s all fine, but I think, fundamentally, the answers that we get need to be correct. I don’t know that we’re making enough of an effort to get at that fundamental issue,” says Dáte.
Okay, but how would a Dáte-led WHCA pry accurate information from a White House run by a reflexive liar? The current WHCA leadership — with Sirius XM’s Olivier Knox serving as president until mid-summer — hasn’t been able to accomplish such a miracle, let alone convince Sanders to abandon her abandonment of the briefing room lectern. “I think something is better than nothing,” says Dáte when pushed on the specifics of his activist platform. “The revelation that the press secretary of the United States of America invented out of whole cloth the explanation of how Comey was fired. ... That’s a big deal, and we collectively did nothing.”
It was also a big deal when then-press secretary Sean Spicer lied about the inauguration. That was more than two years before the Mueller report.
In response to Dáte’s commentary, Knox tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “While it’s certainly true that we can always do more, I think our record for the past year speaks for itself in terms of our willingness to go to bat for the men and women who cover the presidency,” says Knox, noting that the WHCA has stood up for various journalists — including CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Jim Acosta — who’ve been sidelined by the Trump White House at one point or another.
Steven Portnoy, White House correspondent for CBS News Radio, is also running for the WHCA presidency. In his pitch to WHCA’s roughly 420 voting members*, Portnoy lists all the news events that have post-dated the most-recent White House press briefing:
• Mueller report released, Democrats increasingly call for impeachment inquiry
• White House orders former aides to not comply with House subpoenas
• Pelosi-Schumer talks implode as Pelosi accuses Trump of “cover up”
• Trump delegates declassification authority to [Attorney General William P.] Barr, calls for investigation of investigators
• Trump threatens Mexico with tariffs, claims successful deal
• Chinese trade negotiations stall, roiling markets
• Tensions with Iran increase after US ramps up sanctions
• US-backed efforts to oust [Nicolás] Maduro in Venezuela falter
• North Korea tests short-range missiles, Trump plans travel to South Korea
• Russia conducts unsafe military maneuvers near US ships
• Trump declares victory over Islamic State caliphate
• Kushner’s fledgling Mideast peace plan rollout falters
• Trump immigration plan prompts tepid response from conservatives
• Trump says he’ll send illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities
• POTUS takes trips to Japan, Britain, France, US-Mexico border
• Trump purges [Department of Homeland Security] leadership, fires DHS secretary, scraps [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] nomination
• Border apprehensions top 144,000 in May
• White House demands USS McCain be put out of Trump’s sight
• [Department of Health and Human Services] reverses rule on transgender discrimination in health care
• NYT reports Trump was “biggest loser” of all US taxpayers in 1980s, ‘90s
• Both of Trump’s Fed board nominees withdraw under scrutiny
• Trump orders grounding of 737 MAX jets
• US charges [WikiLeaks] founder [Julian] Assange with violating the Espionage Act
“As the president continues to call news organizations ‘corrupt,’ these are just some of the issues he has ducked by not having his aides appear regularly before the press corps," reads Portnoy’s pitch. “It’s a big, complicated world. And the need for us to ask questions on behalf of all the free people of the globe has never been more apparent or more pressing.”
Thanks to the curious institutional mechanics of the WHCA, elections for president are an exercise in abeyance: The person elected president this summer spends two years on the WHCA board before taking over in 2021, when an entirely new White House could be in place. “There’s a lot of logistics that you need to get a handle on,” says Knox of the lag.
correction: A previous version of this post said the pitch went out to 600 WHCA members. While the organization does have approximately 600 members, only 420 of them are eligible to vote in the election.