CNN correspondent Jim Acosta during a presidential news conference outside the White House on Feb. 15. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Media critic

Herewith, another 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 are 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.”

A year ago, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible to justify the policy of prosecuting everyone crossing the southern border, thereby separating immigrant children from their parents. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Sessions said at the time.

The proclamation set the stage later that day for a memorable clash in the White House briefing room. CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, pressed White House press secretary Sarah Sanders: “The attorney general, earlier today, said that somehow there’s a justification for this in the Bible. Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?”

Sanders replied that she was “not aware” of Sessions’s comments, though Acosta wasn’t going to leave things there. The back and forth:

Acosta: Is it a moral policy, in your view?

Sanders: I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is, actually, repeated a number of times throughout the Bible. However, this —

Acosta: But where in the Bible does it say —

Sanders: Hold on, Jim. If you’ll let me finish.

Acosta: — it’s okay to take children away from their parents?

Sanders: Again, I’m not going to comment on the [attorney general’s] specific comments that I haven’t seen.

Acosta: You just said it’s in the Bible to follow the law.

Sanders: That’s not what I said. And I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess, but please don’t take my words out of context.

Now, Acosta has a book on his recent meanderings around the White House — “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America” — and it addresses the tension that arose in the White House briefing room on that day. During an interview with Publishers Weekly, Acosta talked about that particular clash:

[Publishers Weekly:] The White House and other critics have accused you of grandstanding. Let me ask about an exchange in your book with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders about Trump’s border policies, when you asked her, “Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?” Is that question more about editorializing than news-gathering?

[Acosta:] Critics say things like that, but at the White House I’ve broken stories, gotten exclusive interviews, questioned four heads of state and two presidents. In the book there’s a lot of new reporting on the administration. So I have been making it all about the news. As for that question, attorney general Jeff Sessions used a Biblical reference to justify the policy [of family separation at the border]. So I thought, well, Sarah Sanders is the daughter of a Baptist preacher, perhaps she might weigh in on this. I suppose a critic could read that question as grandstanding, but a creative question aimed at penetrating talking points and spin is sometimes the right way to go.

True — Sanders is the daughter of Mike Huckabee, who served as a pastor for more than a decade. Whatever the genesis of the question, it was 100 percent journalism: The attorney general, after all, had introduced the Bible into the discussion of family separation. Why shouldn’t the White House be called upon to defend it?

Videotape of the briefing makes clear that Sanders didn’t enjoy being pressed on the policy’s morality. She appeared uncertain of herself and lapsed into a talking point about the primacy of enforcing the law. After she questioned Acosta’s ability to understand “short sentences,” another correspondent commented to the entire room, “That’s a cheap shot, Sarah.” Things got testier from there.

In the intervening months, Sanders has bailed on the briefings. As of Wednesday afternoon, it has been 93 days since the last official White House briefing. The Bible-moral clash highlights just what has been lost. Here was a forum that allowed voters to see for themselves a top administration aide — someone other than President Trump — being forced to defend a prominent policy in the plain light of day, with sufficient time and space for follow-up questions.

Nowadays? An inferior institution prevails. From time to time, Sanders stops to “gaggle” with reporters who wait for her after TV appearances, commonly on Fox News. On Tuesday, for example, she answered several questions in a session that lasted almost five minutes — or about a quarter as long as her once-customary press briefings.

Whereas Sanders’ press briefings were often aired in their entirety on cable news, these gaggles often escape public notice. USA Today posted video, but it didn’t surface on C-SPAN’s website until Wednesday. According to C-SPAN spokesman Howard Mortman, the network doesn’t “methodically capture every gaggle,” whether it’s with Sanders, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway or other officials. “We do capture everything in-house. . . . Our goal is to get as much of the content on our platforms as resources permit on a daily basis,” noted Mortman.

One constant, however, is a dodgy press secretary. During Tuesday’s gaggle, Sanders was asked about a New York Times story indicating that the president had asked aides to “deny that his internal polling showed him trailing Mr. [Joe] Biden in many of the states he needs to win, even though he is also trailing in public polls from key states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

How did Sanders handle that one? “I think the polling got it completely wrong in 2016. I don’t think it’s right now. I’m not going to get into a lot of details, but we feel incredibly good about what the president has been able to accomplish in the first two years of his administration,” responded Sanders before ticking off her list of presidential accomplishments. But hold on — this was internal polling, Sanders was reminded. “Again, I’m not worried about polling,” she responded, repeating the line about accomplishments.

So, though the briefings haven’t survived, their mendacious spirit lives on.


Read more:

Yesterday’s edition of Sarah Sanders Watch: ‘Mouthpiece for fascism’?

Erik Wemple: How about a press briefing, Sarah Sanders?

Stephanie Wilkinson: I own the Red Hen restaurant that asked Sarah Sanders to leave. Resistance isn’t futile.

James Downie: What is the point of Sarah Sanders?