Sarah Sanders, the combative White House press secretary whose tenure was marked by controversy and questions about her credibility, will be leaving at the end of the month after 23 months on the job, President Trump announced Thursday.
The president shared the news of her unexpected departure in a tweet, writing that she planned to return home to Arkansas.
“She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job!” he wrote. “I hope she decides to run for Governor of Arkansas — she would be fantastic. Sarah, thank you for a job well done!”
Sanders, 36, has been among the longest-serving senior officials in Trump’s administration. During her rocky stint as the president’s official spokeswoman and top adviser, Sanders endeared herself to her boss and to his supporters by her staunch defense of him and his remarks. She often amplified Trump’s criticism of the news media, pushing back on reporters’ questions, sometimes sarcastically.
Sanders made her devotion to the president plain in January, when she told an interviewer for the Christian TV network CBN that “God wanted Donald Trump to become president.”
But her truthfulness was often called into question, including in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s nearly two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The special counsel’s report cites two occasions when Sanders told reporters that “countless” rank-and-file members of the FBI supported Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017 and that they had lost confidence in him. But when asked about this description by investigators, Sanders didn’t stand behind her remarks. She told Mueller’s team that the first time she made the statement, it was a “slip of the tongue” and that when she repeated it later in a press interview, it “was a comment she made ‘in the heat of the moment’ that was not founded on anything,” according to the report.
Sanders’s time as press secretary is also notable for what she didn’t do as much as for what she did. On her watch, the principal function of a press secretary — representing the White House in media briefings — all but ceased to exist. The White House set a record in January for the longest stretch in modern history without a news briefing, 41 days. It then set a record, 42 days, in March, followed by a third streak, reaching 94 days Thursday.
In recent months, Sanders’s primary public contact with reporters was on the White House driveway, where she would hold irregular and impromptu “gaggles,” usually after appearing on Fox News.
While Sanders scaled back her public role, a decision that drew heavy criticism from media and government transparency advocates, she became more influential behind the scenes as a trusted adviser to the president, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the inner workings of the White House.
She was one of a few aides who could dissuade Trump from making a questionable decision — and occasionally help him edit a tweet — and regularly attended meetings on foreign policy, trade and health care in the Situation Room or the Oval Office, though she was not particularly versed in the details of the issues.
Trump would call her in the morning to complain about his news coverage and would sometimes talk to her multiple times a day. Sanders was also a frequent presence in the Oval Office.
The terms of her departure were unclear, though Sanders told staff around 4 p.m. in her office that it was her choice, according to people with knowledge of her comments.
“I am blessed and forever grateful to @realDonaldTrump for the opportunity to serve and proud of everything he’s accomplished. I love the President and my job. The most important job I’ll ever have is being a mom to my kids and it’s time for us to go home. Thank you Mr. President!” she tweeted Thursday afternoon.
Although Trump floated the idea of Sanders running for governor of Arkansas in both his tweet and later during an event at the White House, it is unclear how seriously she is pursuing that idea. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s term isn’t up until 2022.
Sanders joined Trump’s presidential campaign as a senior communications adviser in early 2016 after managing the unsuccessful campaign of her father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R). She served as a spokesman for Trump during the campaign; he appointed her the top deputy to Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, and she replaced Spicer after he resigned in July 2017.
In contrast to Spicer, who could grow visibly agitated under press questioning, Sanders initially drew praise from White House reporters for her calm and friendly manner. But those relations began to sour when she started to skirt questions, occasionally with a chaser of condescension, on sensitive topics by offering rote answers, such as “I haven’t spoken with the president about that” or offering to follow up later and then neglecting to do so.
The eventual decision to stop holding briefings for long periods of time also reflected Sanders’s struggle to publicly defend and explain Trump’s misstatements and outright falsehoods.
In a testy exchange during a briefing in early October, for example, Sanders lashed out at CNN reporter Jim Acosta after he asked her whether she had any problem defending Trump, who had mocked Christine Blasey Ford, the California woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers.
“I don’t have any problem stating facts, no,” Sanders replied. She paused before adding, “I know that’s something you probably do have a problem with. I don’t.”
On Sanders’s watch, the White House took the unusual step of banning two reporters, Acosta and his CNN colleague Kaitlan Collins, from events after they asked questions Trump didn’t like during televised encounters with the president.
The White House took the unprecedented action of taking away Acosta’s White House press pass in early November after he angered Trump during a news conference and briefly tangled with a press aide who sought to take a microphone from Acosta’s hand.
A few days later, a federal judge handed the White House a rebuke, saying it had violated Acosta’s due-process rights. He ordered the White House to restore Acosta’s pass. Acosta was soon back at work.
Among other questionable statements, Sanders asserted in June 2017 that the “president in no way, form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence.” PolitiFact found multiple examples in which Trump “showed a tolerance for, and sometimes even a favorable disposition toward, physical violence” in his campaign rhetoric and statements as president.
She also said in October that Trump was elected by “the overwhelming majority” of voters in 2016. In fact, Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes that Trump, whose victory was sealed by his winning margin in the electoral college.
Other times, she appeared to be caught unaware of recent developments. In May, Sanders was blindsided by Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani’s disclosure during a TV interview that Trump had paid $130,000 to reimburse Michael Cohen, his longtime personal attorney, for Cohen’s payment to Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who said she had a sexual relationship with Trump. Sanders had previously insisted that Trump wasn’t aware of Cohen’s payment to Daniels, which was made to secure her silence about the alleged affair just days before the election.
After Giuliani’s comment, Sanders tacitly acknowledged that Trump himself was the source of the misinformation. She explained the discrepancy at a media briefing by saying repeatedly that she gave “the best information that we have at the time.”
She also said in the summer of 2017 that Trump “certainly didn’t dictate” a misleading statement to the New York Times on behalf of his son, Donald Trump Jr., about the circumstances surrounding his meeting at Trump Tower with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign. The president’s personal legal team later told Mueller that Trump had, in fact, dictated the statement.
Asked by reporters in June to explain this misinformation, Sanders declined. She instead repeatedly told reporters to ask Trump’s lawyers about their statements. “I’m an honest person,” she said when reporters grilled her about her credibility. She added, “Frankly, I think my credibility is probably higher than the media’s. And I think in large part that’s because you guys spend more of your time focused on attacking the president instead of reporting the news.”
Sanders herself has occasionally been the subject of news stories, such as during the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April 2018. Comedian Michelle Wolf mocked her during her standup routine, joking at one point that Sanders “burns facts and then uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”
Sanders, who was sitting several seats away on the dais, did not visibly react at the time. She later told Fox News, “That evening says a whole lot more about her than it does about me.”
She said much the same thing in June of that year, when she and her husband and some friends were asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, Va., after the restaurant’s owner said her kitchen staff objected to serving her. “Her actions say far more about her than about me,” Sanders tweeted. “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” She later tweeted out the name of the restaurant, drawing a rebuke from ethics experts who said it amounted to an abuse of power.
While Sanders was well liked within the White House, she also conflicted at times with fellow aides, particularly during the highly chaotic first few months of Trump’s presidency.
Early in the administration, Sanders was among a group of White House aides who gathered in Spicer’s office to discuss leaks to the media.
Stephen K. Bannon, then a senior White House adviser, defended a group of his loyalists who had been accused of the leaks. These young aides, Bannon railed, were “warriors” for Trump.
Finally, Sanders had heard enough. She stood from her perch on the couch to look Bannon in the eye and became visibly emotional.
“I’ll tell you who the warriors for Trump are,” Sanders said, recalled someone in the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recall a private conversation. “The warriors are the folks like me who were there from the beginning and are still fighting for him every day.”
Then, she turned and walked out.
Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.