The West Wing shouting match was so loud that more than a dozen staffers heard it.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cursed and yelled at White House Counsel Donald McGahn during the February confrontation, according to two people familiar with the episode. Misleading statements about the domestic abuse scandal that felled staff secretary Rob Porter had dragged the administration into a maelstrom of chaos and contradictory public statements.
Exasperated, Sanders told McGahn she would not continue to speak for the administration unless she was provided more information about Porter’s situation.
The dispute, which erupted in a hallway outside Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin’s office, was resolved after Sanders received the clarity she sought, the people familiar with the argument said. Hours later, Sanders returned to her lectern to field queries from a skeptical press corps, though her answers left reporters with more questions.
The moment illustrates the precarious role Sanders has chosen to fill as the public face of the Trump administration — and the doubts about her credibility in representing a president who traffics in mistruths and obfuscations.
Sanders was thrust into an especially harsh limelight over the past week. She was the subject of an acerbic broadside about her “bunch of lies” by comedian Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Then she was forced to explain the inconsistent accounts from her, President Trump and his new personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, about the hush money paid to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. The week was punctuated by an onslaught of commentary about Sanders’s character.
By virtue of her position, Sanders is inextricably bound in the mistruths of the Trump administration. She is a willing warrior for Trump, and her critics say she should be held accountable for his utterances — from the untruthful to the racist to the sexist. Since taking office, Trump has made more than 3,000 false or misleading claims, according to an analysis by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
“When the president blithely admits to lying, it makes all those who are paid to repeat and defend his stories liars, as well,” said David Axelrod, who was a senior White House adviser under President Barack Obama. “Their credibility is tied to his. It’s a high price to pay for a job, even in the White House.”
Sanders, 35, is no political ingenue. She was raised in the wild-and-woolly politics of Arkansas, the only daughter of former governor Mike Huckabee, and grew up to work on his two unsuccessful presidential campaigns.
By the time she took over as White House press secretary from Sean Spicer in July, the administration’s penchant for misleading the public at the president’s direction was well established. At his first press briefing, Spicer vigorously misrepresented the size of Trump’s inaugural crowds, soaring to national fame for the wrong reasons.
Those in Trump’s orbit argue that the attacks on Sanders have been more sustained and personally vicious than those faced by press secretaries in previous administrations. They argue that in a hyper-polarized nation — and amid the frenzied environment nurtured by a president who is at war with what he calls the “Fake News” media — Sanders has become an unwitting Rorschach test for Trump’s critics.
Allies of Sanders say that she often pushes back on Trump, who wants her to attack the media even harder and more frequently, and that other administrations have also faced credibility problems, such as the mistruths on the Monica Lewinsky affair under President Bill Clinton and the false information on weapons of mass destruction under President George W. Bush.
“It doesn’t matter who holds this job for President Trump, they’re going to be unfairly attacked and ridiculed,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser. “Since Sarah Huckabee Sanders works for President Trump, it seems to be open season on her professionally and personally.”
Sanders declined to be interviewed for this article.
Fresh trouble for Sanders arose Wednesday night, when Giuliani, in a freewheeling interview with Sean Hannity, told the friendly Fox News host that Trump had reimbursed his longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for the $130,000 in hush money he paid to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. The payment helped secure her silence shortly before the 2016 election about an alleged sexual affair with Trump a decade earlier, which the president has denied.
Giuliani’s disclosure appeared to be at odds with Sanders’s repeated insistence that Trump was not aware of Cohen’s payment to Daniels. The interview, which Sanders did not coordinate, left her in an untenable position, she told colleagues.
So did Giuliani’s proclamation that three American prisoners soon would be released from North Korea, a development the White House had not confirmed.
Reporters pressed Sanders on Thursday: Was she a liar or simply in the dark? And why was the president’s personal attorney authorized to announce news about sensitive hostage negotiations?
“I’ve given the best information I had at the time,” Sanders said, a line she repeated in general six times. “Some information I am aware of, and some I’m not.”
Sanders said she first learned that Trump had reimbursed Cohen by watching Giuliani’s interview with Hannity. At another point in her briefing, she repeated her assertion that she does not intentionally mislead the public, but acknowledged that she is not always provided the most accurate or complete information about her boss.
Sanders also offered a general criticism of peddling untruths — or, as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway once memorably dubbed them, “alternative facts.”
“I would always advise against giving false information,” Sanders said. “As a person of human decency, I do my best to give the right information.”
Sanders’s defenders say she spends considerable time crafting talking points that convey the president’s wishes but also are technically truthful. If she is guilty of anything, they say, it is providing incomplete information.
In the Daniels episode, for instance, Sanders has largely cited the president’s own statements and referred questions to his outside attorneys.
Before most briefings, she meets with Trump in the Oval Office to discuss how he would like her to answer news-of-the-day questions, White House officials said. The president sometimes dictates lines for her to read or orders her to use precise words on particularly sensitive matters.
Sanders routinely dodges questions on hot topics by telling reporters she has not asked the president about it — a deliberate strategy to avoid having to wade into delicate issues, according to a Sanders confidant.
She deflects nearly every question about the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the election unless she has a prepared statement from the president to read — a protective move against creating legal exposure for herself with extemporaneous answers.
“Sarah has done a fantastic job of keeping in line with understanding how to effectively communicate what the president’s thoughts are at any given time, recognizing that it is a very dynamic and fluid situation in many cases,” Spicer said. “What she has done is, she has realized, you can’t get in trouble for what you don’t say.”
Behind the scenes, Sanders has joked with colleagues that she has no idea whom the president will fire, what he will tweet or when he might change his mind. Unlike the more pugilistic Spicer, Sanders has privately displayed a gallows humor.
Sanders sometimes finds herself out of the loop and is not the ubiquitous presence that former communications director Hope Hicks was in the president’s daily life.
When Trump offered John Bolton the job as national security adviser, the president had already begun configuring his own press strategy before Sanders was alerted, according to White House officials, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. Sanders was soon hustled into the Oval Office shortly before Trump tweeted about the hiring.
After Trump revealed that he was urging states to send troops to the U.S.-Mexican border, Sanders scurried to figure out why he had said that and how it would work, only to learn he had been briefed on a proposal the week before, officials said.
In a West Wing riven by infighting and a revolving door, Sanders is one of the only senior officials who does not generally draw arrows. She has lasted longer than some of her colleagues expected.
During the Porter saga, colleagues say, they frequently saw Sanders upset as she managed the fallout. She helped craft a statement that defended Porter and that later became an embarrassment to the administration. But, officials said, she was careful not to betray the administration’s missteps publicly, as her deputy Raj Shah had when he said that “we all could have done better” — which attracted criticism from the president.
Although combative with reporters on camera, Sanders is largely regarded as more pleasant and helpful behind the scenes. She works to provide reporters answers to their questions, including hunting down colleagues for help.
Sanders often mentions her three small children during her briefings, reminding the millions of viewers tuning in on television that she is a mother. She sometimes makes hokey jokes to leaven the mood in the briefing room and is known to wish some reporters a happy birthday from the lectern.
“Sarah has always been coolheaded and professional and always gives our arguments for greater transparency and openness a respectful hearing,” said Olivier Knox, the chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM, who will assume the presidency of the White House Correspondents’ Association this summer.
Last Saturday night, Sanders sat next to Knox at the head table for the correspondents’ dinner. She did not stand up to congratulate the journalists who were presented awards — including a team from CNN, which Trump has assailed as “fake.” And as Wolf mocked her, joking that she “burns facts and then uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Sanders sat stoically.
Later that evening, Sanders and her husband, Bryan, were spotted at the invite-only MSNBC after-party, greeting friends and reporters well after midnight.