In The White House Press Room, Sarah Sanders Channels President Trump
It's a typical part of the White House press secretary's job: defend the president and sometimes clash with reporters. But Donald Trump is not a typical president. For Sarah Sanders, that has meant an unusually combative relationship with the press.
This weekend marks one year since Sanders was named press secretary. She's coming off an especially chaotic week, spent explaining Trump's contradictory remarks about Russian interference in U.S. elections.
In the briefing room, Sanders often moves quickly from one news outlet to the next, cutting off follow-up questions before ending press conferences with many reporters' questions unanswered.
Several heated exchanges have created headlines of their own. In June, for example, during a discussion of the administration's practice of separating families accused of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, Sanders told CNN's Jim Acosta, "I know it's hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess." She has frequently sparred with American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan, whom she's accused of rudeness during briefings; Ryan has, in turn, accused Sanders of singling her out.
But Sanders' predecessor, Sean Spicer, said she has been particularly effective at the job. Spicer told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly this week that Sanders understands and channels Trump in a way he sometimes struggled to do.
"That was a challenge for me at the beginning," Spicer said. "He's an unconventional candidate and president; he's a disrupter, and we were trying to adapt. And I think she's done a good job of adapting to what he wants her to do and say and communicate his thoughts."
Sanders' critics also say her style is a direct reflection of her boss's combative nature. Amanda Carpenter is a former press aide to Republicans including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and author of the book Gaslighting America, which is critical of Trump. Carpenter said it's normal for a press secretary to disagree with journalists, but Sanders has gone further.
"Questioning whether they're lying, [whether] the storylines that they are writing are because they hate the president?" Carpenter said. "I mean, once you're questioning motives, you're not doing a service to anyone. You're not relaying information; you're playing us versus them."
Sanders' job is no easy task, said Joe Lockhart, who was press secretary to former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings. But Lockhart said Sanders and others in the Trump administration have changed the relationship between the White House and the press in ways that may leave an impact far into the future.
"I think we're in kind of no man's land right now," Lockhart told NPR. "And there's no reason to believe that the next person — Democrat or Republican — is going to be any more responsive to the traditional way a press secretary has worked, and a president and the press corps have worked together."
In an interview with C-SPAN in June, Sanders acknowledged her tense relationship with the press, saying, "I think certainly the tension could be lower, and I've made attempts to try to do that a few times. But it's always going to be a little bit of friction between the White House and the White House press corps."
Recently that tension extended beyond the press room. Last month, Sanders was turned away from The Red Hen restaurant in Virginia after being recognized as Trump's press secretary. Speaking to reporters later, Sanders called out people who'd made threats against both her and the restaurant.
"We are allowed to disagree, but we should be able to do so freely and without fear of harm," Sanders said. "And this goes for all people, regardless of politics."
Sanders did not respond to requests for an interview with NPR. Her colleague on the White House communications team, Hogan Gidley, has known Sanders since she was a college student and he was working for her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In an interview with NPR, Gidley said no one can fully prepare for life at the White House, but Sanders' upbringing in the political world has done so as much as possible.
"Because we basically are running a campaign every day," Gidley said. "Sarah knows how to run those campaigns; she also knows how to answer for those campaigns. And anything the president says, she's ready to defend and explain to the American people."
Rex Nelson, an Arkansas journalist and former Huckabee aide, has known Sanders since she was a child.
"I probably never could have predicted in those years she'd end up being the White House press secretary, but that said, I am not surprised," said Nelson, who is now senior editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "She has been around major American politics in all of her formative years; when other kids were going to the beach on vacation, she was going to the summer meeting of the National Governors Association."
There's been recent speculation about Sanders' next professional move. She recently pushed back on a CBS News report that she'd told friends she was preparing to leave the Trump administration at the end of the year.
Sanders tweeted in June, "I love my job and am honored to work for @POTUS."