Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, says that she never set out to be “the face of anything.” Most of her thirty-one predecessors came from careers in journalism or communications, but Sanders’s background is in Republican campaign management and strategy. A conservative Christian, she worked only with similarly minded candidates, such as the Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Senator Tom Cotton, of Arkansas. The other Arkansas senator, John Boozman, also hired Sanders, and he told me that she was adept at turning complex policy material “into words that people can understand without falling asleep.” These words were often pointed—Sanders whittled political messages into shivs.
In 2010, she ran Boozman’s successful Senate campaign. He is pro-life, but when his opponent, the Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln, suggested, inaccurately, that he believed abortion is immoral even for pregnancies resulting from sexual assault, Sanders staged a blistering counterattack. Within hours, Boozman had declared that Lincoln, in a “preposterous” and “shameful” move, had framed him as an “advocate for rapists’ rights.” Patrick Creamer, Boozman’s longtime flack, told me, “Sarah had a keen understanding that you can’t let someone else tell your story. She knows the other side is going to paint you in the worst light, and that you have to dictate the terms.”
Some of the campaigns she worked on were accused of stoking fears about immigrants. Cotton, speaking at a town hall in 2014, declared, falsely, that “groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico,” and warned, “They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”
Sanders, who is thirty-six, is what is sometimes called a P.K. —a preacher’s kid. She is also a politician’s kid. Her father is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who, as a teen-ager, wrote in a Baptist newspaper that the “Christian youth of today are searching for real answers to real problems presented in a blunt manner.”
Huckabee became a pastor, and in 1989, when Sanders was seven, he was elected president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. After Joycelyn Elders, at that time the head of the Arkansas Department of Health, remarked that abortion opponents needed to “get over” their “love affair with the fetus,” Huckabee decided to run for the U.S. Senate, as a Republican. His wife, Janet, and their children—Sarah, John Mark, and David—handed out flyers at rallies and county fairs. Huckabee lost. The next year, he ran for lieutenant governor and won, and then he became governor, a post that he held for a decade. In 2008 and 2016, he ran for President.
Sanders worked on all seven of her father’s political campaigns. When Huckabee appeared at the Hope Watermelon Festival or the Gillett Coon Supper, she went along. “I’m a total daddy’s girl,” she once said. Huckabee opposed gay marriage and condemned abortion. Yet for some Republicans he wasn’t conservative enough. As governor, he created a health-care program for children, and favored legislation allowing high-achieving immigrants, regardless of their legal status, to apply for a state-funded college scholarship. But, whereas Democrats attributed crime and poverty to inequality and to educational failures, Huckabee blamed “the selfish decision to ignore God’s standards of integrity.”
During high school, in Little Rock, Sanders served as an officer of the Arkansas Federation of Teenage Republicans. As a senior at Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkadelphia, she led the student senate. She met her future husband, Bryan Sanders, a Republican pollster and strategist, in Iowa, before the 2008 caucuses. The godfather of the first of their three children, Chip Saltsman, oversaw Huckabee’s first Presidential campaign. Huckabee has said that, while other kids were watching cartoons or jumping rope, his daughter was learning about cross-tabulation tables—a method for breaking down polling data. The political consultant Dick Morris, who worked on Huckabee’s campaign for lieutenant governor, once recalled, “Sarah would listen intently, and I found myself sometimes briefing her as much as Mike.” Sanders has said, “I wanted to be in the middle of the heart of it all.”
In 2007, Sanders, then twenty-five, moved temporarily to Iowa, to prepare her father’s campaign for the state’s Presidential caucuses. To compensate for a shortfall of funding, Huckabee appeared on everything from “The Colbert Report” to “The Tyra Banks Show.” Although he made it clear that he was a conservative Christian, he avoided the divisive tone of a Phyllis Schlafly, saying that if voters wanted a leader with a “mean spirit” he wasn’t “their guy.” Huckabee won Iowa, but his campaign sputtered, and, when John McCain won the nomination instead, evangelical voters embraced the angry nationalism of his Vice-Presidential choice, Sarah Palin.
Sanders went back to Little Rock and kept working as a political consultant; Huckabee began commuting to New York City, where he hosted a show on Fox News. His rhetoric grew bitter. He declared that citizens who put “faith and family first” were “American outcasts,” and wrote that “city slickers who are more afraid of guns than of the criminals who might use them have a serious mental condition.” By the time he ran for President again, in 2016, with Sanders as his campaign manager, he’d adopted what one reporter described to me as a “dark populism—all ‘us versus them.’ ” But another candidate—Donald Trump—went even darker, and dominated the race. Huckabee dropped out.
Soon afterward, in February, 2016, Trump invited Huckabee and Sanders to meet him at the Atlanta airport. There they boarded Trump’s private jet. He was sitting in a white leather club chair, with a few advisers, including Hope Hicks and Corey Lewandowski, nearby. When Trump asked Huckabee for an endorsement, Huckabee instead suggested that he enlist his daughter.
Trump needed a stronger link to evangelicals and women, and Sanders was happy to provide one. Despite the differences in their family backgrounds—Mike and Janet Huckabee grew up poor; Trump didn’t—the candidate felt familiar to her. Huckabee was an economic populist; Trump claimed to be one, too. Huckabee had campaigned on a promise to “restore America’s greatness”; Trump’s slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Huckabee wanted to ban abortion; Trump had vowed to appoint pro-life advocates to the bench. Like Huckabee, Trump enjoyed ad-libbing while giving speeches.
Sanders relished the idea of helping an outsider like Trump defeat the people she viewed as the ultimate Washington insiders: the Clintons. She appreciated Hillary Clinton for advancing the cause of female candidates, but loathed her politics. “She has shown her utter contempt for anyone that doesn’t support her and doesn’t think like her, and I think that’s a really scary thing to have in a President,” Sanders said, on a talk-radio show. On another program, she said, “I grew up in Arkansas. I lived under the Clinton machine. My dad fought against it his entire political career.”
Compared with Trump’s advisers, Hicks told me, Sanders “had real political experience.” She’d volunteered for George W. Bush’s reëlection campaign, in 2004, and worked for two years in Washington, as a legislative-affairs staffer in the Department of Education. More important to Trump was the fact that, under Sanders’s direction, Boozman had trounced Lincoln, a popular senator, by twenty-one points. Sanders had also shown an uncanny ability to adopt the voice of the person she was representing: Boozman was gentlemanly and never ranted, and so she had modulated her tone in public appearances. With Trump, she would need a more bombastic approach.
Trump offered Sanders a place in the campaign, and she started representing him on television. She spoke with confidence and didn’t suppress her strong Arkansas accent. After watching her TV clips, Trump sometimes told aides, “Give me Sarah’s number, I want to call her,” because he found her “amazing” on camera. An observer close to Sanders told me, “If you’re not on TV, you don’t really exist as far as Trump is concerned.”
On Fox News, an interviewer noted to Sanders that Trump needed to make “inroads” with the “white suburban professional woman—normally, a mother, college-educated.” The interviewer told her, “You fit that description,” and asked, “What is Trump’s best argument for that particular voting group?”
“Real simple,” Sanders replied. “The things that keep most of the moms—myself included—that I’ve talked to up at night are: Who’s gonna change America? Who’s gonna make it safer? Who’s gonna create jobs? Who’s gonna make education better? Who’s gonna make life better for my kids?”
Sanders declared that she opposed abortion and supported the Second Amendment, tax cuts, and “more localized government.” After the final Presidential debate, she told the host of a North Carolina radio program that Trump offered the strongest “pro-life position that any Republican nominee has given in my lifetime.” She called it “a pivotal moment” that “should give every Christian and every evangelical, every Catholic, reason to support Donald Trump and reason to vote for him, because that is the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.”
After Trump won the election, Sean Spicer, his first press secretary, hired Sanders as his principal deputy. Spicer began his tenure by perpetuating Trump’s lie about the size of the crowd at his Inauguration, and never recovered. He made endless gaffes, such as calling Nazi concentration camps “Holocaust centers.” By late February, 2017, Sanders had become a “key confidante” of the President, Hicks told me. Sanders had little mastery of policy, but Trump considered her frank, and a proxy for Christian voters.
By May, he was slotting Sanders into live press briefings. As elsewhere in the Administration, the communications department was having serial personnel convulsions: the hiring and firing of Anthony Scaramucci; the resignations of Spicer and Hicks. Sanders filled the void. No one had expected her to become press secretary, least of all Sanders herself. But, as a former White House adviser told me, “there wasn’t anybody else.”
Sanders’s surprise ascendance meant that a campaign operative, not a media-relations professional, was in place as press secretary as the President engaged in ever more outlandish behavior, including embracing leaders of authoritarian regimes and repeatedly calling journalists “the enemy of the people.” A publicist tends to describe even controversial events in bland, soft language; an operative is skilled at provoking outrage.
A press secretary who had an abiding respect for First Amendment freedoms likely would have resigned once it became clear that Trump intended to steamroll his way through the Constitution. But Sanders stayed, even after Trump praised Vladimir Putin and condemned his own federal intelligence agencies; even after he publicly considered handing over Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, to Putin’s regime for “interviewing”; even after Trump announced his intention to revoke the security clearances of former national-security officials who had criticized his leadership; and even after Trump joked at a rally that Greg Gianforte, the Montana representative who body-slammed a reporter, had “fought—in more ways than one—for your state.” The Arkansas Times, an alt-weekly, recently declared, “If the Huckster spawn had a soul, she’s sold it.”
Officially, the White House press secretary’s job is to represent the President and the executive branch before the press and the public, and to relay media inquiries to the White House. Acrimony among these various parties isn’t unusual: Ronald Reagan once muttered, “Sons of bitches,” after reporters questioned him. But the Trump Administration’s relationship with the press transcends ordinary discord. The President’s toxic relationship with the media demands that a press secretary behave, at least publicly, less as a source of information than as a battering ram—especially during a moment of crisis, like now.
On September 5th, the Times published an anonymous Op-Ed, by a senior Trump official, claiming that some members of the Administration, appalled by the President’s “amorality,” have been secretly working to counter “his worst inclinations.” The claim is echoed by the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, whose new book, “Fear,” describes an ongoing “administrative coup d’etat,” and notes that White House officials “had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses.”
Sanders has labelled “Fear” a work of “fiction,” and attempted to trivialize its celebrated author by noting that she hadn’t read his books. The day that the Op-Ed appeared, she convened her staff, then launched a counterattack questioning the mystery author’s honor, deploying such Trumpian keywords as “pathetic” and “coward.” On Twitter, she urged Americans to call the “failing NYT”— Trump’s favorite (and erroneous) characterization of the newspaper—and demand the unmasking of the “gutless loser” who’d written the piece. Her tweet included the paper’s main phone number.
Two former White House ethics chiefs declared that Sanders’s tweet had violated federal law. One of them, Richard Painter, who worked in the Bush Administration, told Newsweek that Sanders was “using her official position to interfere with the freedom of the press.” This wasn’t the first abuse-of-power complaint. In June, Sanders was accused of employing the @PressSec account to target the Red Hen—a restaurant in Virginia that, when she went to dine there, asked her to leave.
When Sanders holds a press briefing, Trump often watches it live on TV in a dining room next to the Oval Office. “It’s like having the theatre critic-in-chief sitting there, and you’d better believe he’ll tell you about it afterward,” a White House reporter told me. (Spicer once said that Trump expects his messages to be delivered “verbatim.”) Another reporter said that, under Trump, no press secretary can say anything “even somewhat nuanced,” and must constantly “praise the boss as a spotless king.”
For Sanders, each press briefing is preceded by a styling session with a White House production assistant, who fixes her dark, straight hair and applies TV-grade makeup to her face. She pairs monochromatic dresses with a strand of pearls. Last August, her mother tweeted, “What do you call @PressSec with her pearl necklace at press briefing? Pearls before swine!” (“Not very ‘Christian’ Janet,” someone tweeted back.)
Briefings take place in the West Wing’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. A bright-blue pocket door slides open, disgorging Sanders and an entourage of aides. At the podium, she faces forty-nine seats, each assigned to an individual news outlet. Sanders told me, “The odds are stacked against you. I like it, though. Nervous adrenaline is good.” (Sanders may accept that she can’t control the questions she is asked, but she nevertheless tries to take control of every exchange. In her interactions with me, she took this approach to extremes, saying that almost everything was off the record.)
From the start, Sanders was more competent than Spicer; she didn’t ramble or sweat, and seemed relatively at ease at the podium. The New Republic observed that she was “not so obviously a shrieking propaganda mouthpiece.” (When White House reporters talked to me about Spicer, they used words like “laughingstock” and “vindictive.”) Several times, Sanders tried to give briefings a folksy touch by reading a letter from a Trump supporter, including one from a boy in Virginia, Frank Giaccio, who had offered to mow the White House lawn. The letter-reading tradition went awry after Frank visited the White House, and a photograph of Trump yelling at the child as he mowed became a meme.
Sanders’s briefings have now become as tense as Spicer’s. As she fields questions, her eyebrows twitch in irritation. She has a sarcastic streak, and some jokes sound defensive. At one briefing, a reporter misstated a date; when his peers corrected him, Sanders said, “If only they had that same politeness when correcting us.” After she noted that all Presidents have flaws, a reporter asked her to name Trump’s. “Probably that he has to deal with you guys on a daily basis,” she replied.
Perhaps Sanders’s greatest asset at the podium is her embodiment of the Trump voter. The supposedly populist President is tremendously wealthy, as are many top Administration figures: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Steve Mnuchin, and Kellyanne Conway. Like Sanders, Vice-President Mike Pence is also a heartland Christian, but he’s rarely on TV, and he lacks the combative instinct that she shares with Trump. Sanders’s briefings offer repeated confirmation to Trump’s base that the U.S. government is being run by Christians standing up to condescending Beltway insiders. In a characteristic flourish, Sanders defended immigrant-family separations by noting that “it is very Biblical to enforce the law.”
In the Obama Administration, press briefings happened almost daily, and regularly exceeded an hour. Sanders’s have become sporadic and typically last about twenty minutes. (Olivier Knox, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, has complained to Sanders about the infrequency of briefings.) According to the Washington Post, Sanders “manufactures urgency”—exuding a righteous impatience that simultaneously limits her exposure to difficult questions and makes her appear determined to keep reporters in their place. In previous Administrations, most press briefings were low-key affairs in which journalists downloaded policy details; reporters were allowed many follow-ups, and sometimes asked dozens of them. Sanders grumbles if someone asks more than two questions. A Post analysis showed that, in her first year, she spent less time informing the public than Spicer had done in half that time. When C-span asked Sanders why her briefings were so short, she said, “I don’t think I take as long to get to the point.”
Spicer had trouble channelling Trump and understanding what he wanted in a press secretary. Sanders has no such difficulty. After Trump referred to undocumented gang members as “animals,” a reporter asked her, “What did the President mean when he said some immigrants are non-people, they’re ‘animals’?” Sanders claimed that Trump was referring only to MS-13 gang members, and defended his harshness: “Frankly, I think the term ‘animal’ doesn’t go far enough.”
Reporters complain that Sanders’s briefings almost never involve substantive disclosures. Instead, she deflects questions and returns to the same talking points: “stock market, at an all-time high”; “isis, on the run.” A White House reporter told me, “I’ve never learned a single thing in that briefing room that’s been helpful to me. It’s the part of my job that I dread most. You’re either being spun or gaslit.” Mike McCurry, a press secretary under Bill Clinton, has lamented that, in the Trump era, live briefings have devolved into an “entertainment product.” More and more, Sanders presents a televised reënactment of Trump’s Twitter feed. This enrages Democrats, but Republican voters admire Sanders’s performances: according to a Gallup poll, eight out of ten view her favorably.
Sanders has repeatedly said that she doesn’t lie when at the podium. But many of her public statements have later proved false: Trump did know about his lawyer Michael Cohen’s payoffs to various women; Trump did know in the summer of 2016 about a meeting that his son Don, Jr., had with a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. (Sanders says that, at the time, she believed these statements to be true.)
Other Sanders statements have been dubious, if not bald-faced lies. After Trump fired the F.B.I. director James Comey, she contended that “countless” Bureau employees had contacted her to voice support for the dismissal. She has insisted that “the President doesn’t support violence against anyone,” even though Trump once told his supporters at a rally to “knock the crap” out of protesters. She reiterates Trump’s characterization of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference as a “hoax.” She has denounced legitimate questions from reporters as “disgraceful,” “inappropriate,” “pretty ridiculous,” and “completely ridiculous.” After reporters asked John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to clarify a statement, she said that it was “highly inappropriate” to question the word of a four-star Marine general.
Sanders believes that the media’s White House coverage focusses too much on staffer intrigue and not enough on Trump’s “substantive issues.” In February, at a White House Correspondents’ Association panel discussion featuring Sanders and McCurry, she complained, “Ninety per cent of the coverage about this President is negative.”
“That’s because ninety per cent of what he’s done the people have questions about,” McCurry said.
Peter Baker, who covers the White House for the Times, also appeared at the event, and noted that Trump has made more false statements than any other President. (Since taking office, he has publicly lied, or made misleading claims, more than five thousand times.) “If he’s gonna say things that aren’t true, we’re gonna have to say they’re not true,” Baker said.
When McCurry chastised a reporter, he generally did so off camera. But Trump thrives on bullying antagonists in public, and has urged his staff to “fight” the press. In Sanders, he has found an eager pugilist. After Trump tweeted that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand used to beg him for contributions at Trump Tower—and “would do anything for them”—a reporter asked Sanders if this had a sexual implication. “Only if your mind was in the gutter would you have read it that way,” she retorted. Sanders prefers short, tough interviews to “soft,” one-on-one encounters in which she might drop her guard and say something that she will regret. In public, she tends to handle reporters with the sort of eye-rolling derision that Fox News’ Tucker Carlson levies against liberal guests. In one notorious exchange, Sanders told CNN’s Jim Acosta, who she thinks performs for the cameras, “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences.”
Sanders often appears to mistake journalism for stenography or cheerleading—she sometimes tells the media what to “celebrate,” such as the state of the economy. Sometimes, when confronted with the fact that reporting is often adversarial, she reflexively mentions courtesy, seemingly not understanding that journalism is an exercise in democracy, not etiquette.
Despite her complaints about rude reporters, Sanders might not actually be hoping for more decorousness from the press corps. The campaign strategist in her surely realizes that heated exchanges generally work to Trump’s advantage. The more aggressive the press’s questions, the more loudly the President cries “fake news,” and the more tenaciously his base supports him. It’s also been good for Sanders’s job security: the more ferociously she responds to the media in public, the more Trump admires her.
The contentiousness that Sanders projects in public is not on display in private. The reporters and the White House officials who consistently work with her outside the briefing room like her personally, and find her to be helpful and reliable. If a reporter has uncovered a fact, she’ll confirm it. If a reporter is on the right track, she may say, “I can’t wave you off of that.” She’ll give reporters a heads-up on a development in a story they’ve been covering. If she feels that she has been too rough on a reporter during a briefing, she sometimes calls the person afterward and, without quite apologizing, smooths things over. One reporter told me that Sanders had “saved our bacon” by catching inaccuracies. Another said, “She has said things that aren’t true from the podium, and she, at times, has deflected my questions in a way that was misleading. But I’ve never caught her in a lie, one on one, where she told me that X didn’t happen and I found out later that it did.” The reporter added, “You sit in Sarah’s office and she can be remarkably decent and charming, and then she can be obfuscating and ridiculous at the podium. Both of those things are true at the same time.”
Brian Karem, the executive editor of Sentinel Newspapers, told me that, at the podium, Sanders “deflects when she doesn’t need to.” He said, “Because of her inexperience, and because she’s a true believer, she sees things that aren’t there. She anticipates traps that don’t exist. She’s creating more of a mess than she’s cleaning up.” Another White House reporter, who deals with Sanders almost daily, said, “For all of Sarah’s rhetoric, I don’t think she says half of what Trump wants her to say. And the way she treats the press is probably not even a third as bad as others in the White House would like us to be treated. In some ways, I see her as a force pushing back on some of the worst tendencies in the President.”
Initially, Trump’s communications team had what Raj Shah, Sanders’s principal deputy, called a “mishmash of a process.” He explained, “We’d have, like, twenty people in there, advising Trump. It was totally disorganized.” Each day, Spicer’s staff assembled a voluminous briefing book, which Spicer attempted to absorb overnight. Sanders’s staff, on the other hand, winnows preparatory information to a concise packet with a top sheet printed “press guidance.” Talking points are developed throughout the day. Sanders “internalizes” them, Shah told me, and then her staff “murder-board” her. The term, which originated at the Pentagon, refers to subjecting someone to questions that he or she is likely to be asked in a press conference or a debate.
I sat in on the murder-board session for the July 2nd briefing, in Sanders’s office, in the West Wing. Shah and another deputy, Hogan Gidley, were there, along with several staffers, as well as Adam Kennedy, the White House director of research, and Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive, whom Trump was about to hire as his deputy chief of staff for communications.
Sanders was sitting at her desk, which faces a round oak meeting table, a bank of televisions, and a working fireplace. Built-in bookshelves were decorated with an Arkansas license plate, photographs of her children, and, for display, bottles of bourbon.
“Trade?” someone said. Shah tossed Sanders a practice question about Canadian tariffs. “How do we phrase it?” she said. Shah ultimately suggested saying “trade reform,” not “trade war.”
At the time, Trump was pondering nominees to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. “Do you guys have a list of candidates already lined up?” an aide asked. In fact, Trump had solicited Sanders’s opinion about Brett Kavanaugh, the eventual nominee, and she had said that Kavanaugh could both get confirmed and excite the evangelicals in the President’s base. But Trump hadn’t made his final decision yet, and the Administration wasn’t ready to air names in public. Sanders joked that she should say, “It’s me! No further questions! Thanks, guys!” (She delivered a variation on this response at the podium, to tepid laughter.)
Staring at the press-guidance packet, she said, “Is this pronounced ‘El-ee-na’?”
“Ah-lay-nah,” Gidley told her. They were talking about Elena Kagan, whom Barack Obama had appointed to the Supreme Court.
“Can we just say ‘Kagan’?” Sanders said. “Is that rude? I don’t want to screw it up.”
“Justice Kagan,” someone recommended.
The next question was about how many families had been reunited after being separated at the border. “Last week, you said over five hundred—can you tell us exactly?” an aide said. As Sanders scanned her reading material, someone asked if separating families was in the children’s best interest. She replied with a talking point: bringing them here in the first place, and breaking U.S. law, wasn’t in their best interest.
Gidley brought food from the White House mess and handed Sanders soup in a paper container. Staring at a spoonful of it, she said, “I hate olives. Pretty sure this is an olive. Is this an olive?” She held it toward Gidley, who said, “Green pepper.” Sanders said, “If I eat an olive, it’ll ruin my whole day.”
What about Senator Susan Collins’s declaration that she would not vote to confirm any Supreme Court nominee who was “hostile” to Roe? “We need to pull the exact language President Trump used during the campaign,” Sanders told everybody. “Roe v. Wade—they want to zero in and make the Supreme Court’s whole history about that.”
They moved on to a question about nato spending. “We’re lookin’ at you, Germany,” Sanders said. She was drinking a Cherry Coke Zero and taking notes. She wanted to “clean up” the White House’s message about Democrats’ calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ice. After absorbing a prepared statement, she said, “That’s not a very clean hit.” (By the time of the briefing, she’d honed her language, answering a question about green cards with “The President has talked many times about fixing the over-all system.”)
It had just been announced that LeBron James had signed a four-year contract, worth a hundred and fifty-three million dollars, with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Trump Administration has repeatedly tried to counter charges of racism by highlighting a rise in African-American employment. At one point, Shine told Sanders that she should say, “If you don’t think the economy’s doing well, ask LeBron James how he’s doing under President Trump.” Sanders declined, saying, “I’ve got enough problems without bringing LeBron into it.” A month later, Trump posted a tweet insulting James’s intelligence.
In 1992, the year that Mike Huckabee lost his first run for public office, Bill Clinton was elected President. Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat and the lieutenant governor, became Arkansas’s governor, and, in a special election, Huckabee won Tucker’s vacated seat. At the time, the legislature was eighty-six per cent Democratic. The state capitol was so hostile toward Republicans that Huckabee arrived to find that some Democrats had nailed his office door shut.
In May, 1996, Tucker was convicted of fraud and conspiracy; he announced that he would resign, making Huckabee the governor. But, minutes before the scheduled exchange of power, Tucker backpedalled. Huckabee supporters gathered in the capitol, chanting, “We want Mike!” A staffer later said, “It wasn’t storming the Bastille, but it felt pretty close.” Aides and relatives scrummed around Huckabee; the only child present was Sarah, then thirteen. Wearing a navy top, striped shorts, and flats, with her shoulder-length hair pinned back with a barrette, she listened closely, pinching her lips, as the drama escalated. Rex Nelson, Huckabee’s then communications director, told me, “It was probably exciting and scary for her at the same time.” Late that afternoon, Tucker relented, and resigned.
Sanders had just finished eighth grade. The Huckabees had been living in Texarkana, where Sarah had made the cheerleading squad and the basketball team, and she didn’t want to move. She later said, “Fourteen’s an awkward age, anyway—everything so dramatic, down to what color shoes you’re wearing.” Janet Huckabee told me, “She was so miserable, so mad.”
The Huckabees moved into the governor’s mansion, a gated Georgian residence in Little Rock. The city was overwhelmingly Democratic, and Sanders’s neighbors displayed anti-Huckabee banners. The family received hate mail, and newspapers ran articles joking that the Huckabees would barbecue goats on the front lawn. Huckabee later said that people told him, “You don’t have enough class to be in the governor’s mansion.” For Sanders, it was a preview of some of the establishment sneering that accompanied Trump’s arrival in Washington.
The mansion was a place where tourists and staff were always present, and, initially, Janet found it awkward to be shadowed by state troopers. She’d tease them by announcing, “I’m fixing to go to Victoria’s Secrets. Who wants to go?” She told me, “I’d do it for meanness. I didn’t no more want to go to Victoria’s Secrets than a hill of beans.”
Sanders was given Chelsea Clinton’s former bedroom, overlooking the back yard. One afternoon in May, I toured the house where, as Janet put it, Sanders had lived “for the whole of her molding.” Janet came along. She is tall and slightly stooped, with chin-length reddish hair and hazel eyes. She limps from a double knee replacement. We had just sat down in the living room when Susan Hutchinson, Arkansas’s current First Lady, wearing a floral-print dress and heels, came in to say hello. Janet, who had on cargo pants, sneakers, and a plaid shirt, joked, “I dressed up for the event.”
A bit later, Janet took me past the guardhouse, where Sanders used to hang out with the troopers, and the driveway, where her daughter played basketball with prison trusties who worked at the mansion. Sanders once said, “It was important to our family to make sure that we didn’t treat them any differently.”
Local residents and journalists mocked the Huckabees as rubes. Columnists wrote about Mike’s fondness for Velveeta; Janet was criticized for chewing gum during a TV appearance, and for having the azaleas trimmed too soon. A writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette referred to her as Jethrine. The Huckabees complained about the ribbing, but they also exploited it. During a renovation of the mansion, the family, though they could have rented a house or stayed in a hotel, lived in a donated triple-wide, on the grounds. “We are gonna get pounded from all sides from doing this,” Janet warned Mike, but added that their gambit would probably “go national.” She was right: Jay Leno featured the Huckabees and their triple-wide on his show, joking that Arkansas voters might accuse them of putting on airs.
Sanders’s job is no doubt made harder by the fact that Washington insiders can be snobbish; more difficult is the fact that her boss continually acts in ways that require her to make excuses for him. Even the nimblest press secretary would have difficulty finessing the statements of a President who has declared that an African-American member of Congress has a “low I.Q.,” mocked a disabled reporter, bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” called Democrats who don’t clap for him “treasonous,” and ordered Iran’s President, via Twitter, to stop speaking “demented words of violence & death.”
I asked Sanders how she, as a Christian, reconciles her religious beliefs with her support for Trump—a man whose Presidency has been imperilled, in part, by his payment of hush money to a porn star with whom he allegedly committed adultery. Instead of a searching answer, she gave me what has become a pat rationalization of many American evangelicals.
“I’m not going to my office expecting it to be my church,” she answered. “Frankly, if people of faith don’t get involved in the dirty process, then you’re missing the entire point of what we’re called to do. You’re not called to go into the places where everyone already thinks like you and is a believer—you have to go onto a stage where they’re not.” She went on, “You have to take that message into the darkest places, and the dirtiest places, and the most tainted and dysfunctional places. If you can influence even one person, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” (Later, Sanders said that she was speaking broadly, about her social duty as a Christian and not about the White House.)
I said a lot of Americans feel that the person who needs the most help is Trump.
“We all need help,” she said. “That’s the whole basis of Christianity. No one is perfect. We are all sinners.” I asked her if she considered Trump racist. She said no.
According to someone close to her, Sanders tries to focus not on Trump’s immorality but on the positive aspects of his “unconventionality”: “On the Embassy move to Jerusalem, she was, like, ‘I want it moved, and Trump’s the only one with the balls to do it.’ ” (Sanders confirmed that she supports Trump’s Jerusalem move, but denied using that language.)
Watching Sanders at the podium, it is difficult to discern her personal feelings about the most inflammatory aspects of Trump’s agenda—she likes to say that it is her job to “state policy, not make policy.” She has never betrayed disappointment in the President’s personal behavior or offensive remarks. After the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump was broadly condemned for insisting that there had been “blame” on all sides. When Sanders addressed those remarks, she echoed his equivocation: “The President’s been very outspoken in his condemnation of racism and bigotry and hate of all forms.”
Inscrutability is her goal, even on important matters. When asked if she accepts that global warming is caused by human activity, she declined to comment. (This was on a day that the Administration was preparing for the landfall of Hurricane Florence.)
She has a few tics and tells, though. When she’s in spin mode, she overuses the word “certainly.” At one point, Sanders told me that she considers Mack McLarty, Bill Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, “a true statesman” and a “really good guy.” Did she consider Trump a statesman and a good guy? “I definitely think he’s a good person,” she said. She named kindnesses that Trump has privately shown others, then said, “There’s certainly a lot of goodness in him.”
A White House reporter said that Sanders wasn’t “someone who thinks—like Corey Lewandowski—that Trump can do no wrong.” The reporter added, “She will recognize, ‘Fuck, the way Trump woke up and tweeted those seven things this morning is gonna make my day a lot harder.’ She’s not gonna, with a straight face, try to tell you, ‘It was savvy P.R. to order Sessions this morning to end the Mueller investigation.’ She’s also not gonna go out and criticize Trump, not even in an anonymous quote.” Whereas many former Administration officials have publicly vented their frustration with Trump’s intellectual shallowness, Sanders may not see a problem; like the President, she is too busy to read books.
In a recent memoir, Spicer writes that, because of his association with a President many Americans despise, he had to install security cameras at his house, and that his wife began wearing disposable gloves while opening packages. After Sanders was ejected from the Red Hen, she was assigned a Secret Service detail. She has been pilloried by celebrities: Chelsea Handler referred to her as a “harlot” in “summer whore lipstick,” later noting, “When someone lies to the American public every single day, I rule out the normal rules of not making fun of someone’s appearance.” Journalists have been equally unsparing. The Los Angeles Times columnist David Horsey wrote that Sanders resembles “a slightly chunky soccer mom.” In print, Sanders has been called “Orwellian,” “sour,” and “the wall Trump promised to erect.” Civilians have also registered disapproval: she’s been given the middle finger at Costco, and a woman at a D.C. coffee shop once asked her, “How does it feel to be so good at your job—considering that you lie for a living?”
Jordan Rhodes, her oldest friend, is a Republican and the daughter of prominent Arkansas Democrats. She told me that, in February, she and Sanders went with their families to Disney World, where the atmosphere was more welcoming: Sanders had “found her people.” One stranger after another recognized her and excitedly requested selfies.
Sarah and Bryan Sanders have a daughter, Scarlett, who is in elementary school, and two sons: Huck, four, and George, three. Sanders returned to work soon after having each child. They live in northern Virginia, in a house with six bedrooms, one of which is occupied by a Colombian au pair. (Sanders’s kids have picked up some Spanish.) Bryan converted to Catholicism after attending Colby College, in Maine, and on Sundays the family tries to attend an evangelical service at a Washington church with a diverse congregation and female associate pastors. The church is an affiliate of Hillsong, the global megachurch that teaches creationism and intelligent design. Sanders, when asked if she shared these views, said, “I believe in the Bible.” She told me that her pro-life views are “non-negotiable,” and added, “One of the things that makes Americans unique is that we value life. We think each life has intrinsic value and worth, whether you are a baby in the womb or an elderly woman.”
Sanders opposes gay marriage, but isn’t a virulent homophobe like her father—he defends conversion therapy and says that gay relationships have an “ick factor.” Like many modern evangelicals, after work she likes to have a glass of wine. In April, after the W.H.C.A. dinner, in which the comedian Michelle Wolf roasted her—“She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye”—Sanders and her husband stayed at the MSNBC after-party past 2 a.m. A White House reporter told me, “Sarah’s a drinker, and she can be profane—and I don’t say that as an insult.” Sanders, the reporter added, was “more sophisticated than people think.”
Sanders avoids participating in profiles about her, because, she says, she doesn’t want to “become the story.” She was initially wary of me, but in May she conceded to a short meeting in her office. After I did reporting in Arkansas, she began coöperating, but with rigid parameters. I couldn’t visit her home, and I never met her husband, though we did speak on the phone. Her friends and relatives talked to me only after receiving her blessing. Whenever I spent time with Sanders, her tactical instincts were on display, such as when she allowed me, one Saturday in June, to join her for a visit to Rhodes’s home, in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Sanders, Rhodes, and I sat in the library while their kids watched Disney’s “Hercules” in the family room. Sanders, wearing tropical-print shorts and flip-flops, with a blue blouse and her pearls, took a corner of a sofa and pulled a decorative pillow into her lap. Rhodes explained that they’ve been friends since they were thirteen. “We just clicked,” she said. “I was a bridesmaid in her wedding. She’s godmother to my baby, our husbands are really good friends, our kids are best friends. Our dogs love each other.”
“It’s almost like we planned it,” Sanders said. “But God put it all together.”
Rhodes wanted to talk about people’s meanness toward her friend. Sanders said that she ignores online comments about her, but Rhodes said that she reads them, noting that many “disgusting” Facebook posts are written by mothers. She showed me an indignant response that she keeps on her iPhone: “I pray your children never see what you wrote, because this is bullying at its best, which is parenting at its worst.”
At the podium, Sanders capitalizes on the fact that she is the first White House press secretary who is also a mother. She has wished her children happy birthday, and she has identified herself as a parent while defending Trump’s inaction on school shootings. Allowing me access to Rhodes seemed similarly geared to softening her image. Rhodes described her friend as someone who “had everyone’s back growing up.” Sanders emphasized to me that, when her father was in politics, he particularly valued loyalty: “My dad has always said he’d rather have somebody that was incompetent but incredibly loyal than the smartest guy in the room that was totally disloyal.”
Later, Rhodes and Sanders went to a salon to get their hair done before attending a dinner party at the home of a Greenwich socialite. While Sanders was waiting, a woman with a fresh blowout approached her. Greenwich is a Republican island in a blue state, and this was one of “her people.” The woman said, “I love you. You’re phenomenal. I feel like you’re my friend.”
In May, Mike Huckabee flew to Little Rock from Nashville, where he tapes a TV variety show for the Trinity Broadcasting Network. (Nashville has been tough on Huckabee lately: the Country Music Association Foundation, amid complaints about his homophobia, expelled him from its board.) The Huckabees now live in Florida but keep a condo in Little Rock. Mike and Janet celebrated their forty-fourth wedding anniversary—Sanders got married on the same day, in 2010—at a steak house. The next night, Huckabee’s former gubernatorial staff held a gathering. Nelson, his former communications director, told guests, “Just think how life changes—he’s not even the best-known person in his own family!” Someone had recently given Huckabee a T-shirt that read “sarah’s dad.”
That weekend, Huckabee appeared on “Fox & Friends,” to comment on remarks that Barack Obama had made about Trump Administration scandals. During Obama’s Presidency, Huckabee said, “there were a lot of scandals, but the difference was, there wasn’t scrutiny.” He cited Benghazi, “pallets of just raw cash” that had been “delivered to Iran,” and, curiously, “federal raids on guitar companies.”
Huckabee, who recently said on Fox News that the President is correct when he “talks about journalists being enemy of the people,” has begun to mimic Trump’s insinuating tone. After Netflix announced a deal with the Obamas, he tweeted, “It’s the ‘Circle of Life’ in American politics! Simba and Mufasa are singing it now to celebrate! The first video they will produce will be ‘The Lyin’ King.’ ” He defended ice policies by asking, “Where is outrage over permanent separation of a child and mother when the baby is ripped apart in the mother’s womb by knives of abortionists?” He tweeted a photo of tattooed Latinos making gangster signs, calling the men Representative Nancy Pelosi’s “campaign committee for the take back of the House.”
In public, Sanders sometimes uses phrases that can also be found in her father’s books, blog posts, TV clips, and tweets; she has called opponents unhappy people, and declared that their criticisms say more about them than her. Huckabee has said that he prefers “Walmart Republicans, not Wall Street Republicans”; Sanders has joked that she’s “more Sam’s Club than Costco.” Huckabee once complained that “politics has become more and more where you’re handed this script and told, ‘Don’t improv’ ”; Sanders lauds Trump for not being a “scripted robot.” In 2008, when the press noted Huckabee’s weakness on foreign policy—he’d made repeated gaffes about Pakistan—he said, “We’re at a point in politics where everyone wants to say, ‘You made this little error here’ ”; in a briefing, Sanders said, “If we make the slightest mistake . . . it is just an absolute tirade from a lot of people in this room.”
After the “tirade” comment, Brian Karem, the Sentinel Newspapers editor, shouted, “Sarah, come on! You’re inflaming everybody right here and right now with those words.” Karem, who thinks of Sanders as “Trump’s chief propagandist,” later told me, “She wants to act like she’s the schoolmarm and we’re the recalcitrant students. And that’s not the way it works.”
At Sanders’s W.H.C.A. panel discussion with Mike McCurry, he reminded her that, in a democracy, unwelcome questions from the press are an “important part of our process.” He added, “You cannot do this job in an environment in which you are belligerent and saying, ‘We’re at war with these people’ every day.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever said anything similar to that,” Sanders said.
“You haven’t,” McCurry said. But Trump had, and until his election the President and the White House “did not declare war on the press.”
“We have not declared war on the press,” Sanders said, laughing.
“Yes, you did,” McCurry said. The audience murmured in assent. He added, “You can’t do it, but the President has got to roll that back.” Sanders lifted a bottle of water from a side table and sipped.
On June 28th, in Annapolis, a man with a pump-action shotgun opened fire at the offices of the Capital Gazette, killing five people. The man, Jarrod W. Ramos, was charged with first-degree murder; he’d been enraged by the newspaper’s coverage of his criminal online harassment of a woman.
No deadlier event had taken place in an American newsroom, yet Trump declined to lower the flag at the White House and at other federal buildings. The mayor of Annapolis had requested that he do so, but it took five days before the President relented. When the mayor finally received a call from the White House, it was from Sanders.
On July 20th, Trump invited A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, to the Oval Office, to discuss the newspaper’s relationship with the President. Sanders joined Trump in the room. The meeting was off the record, but after Trump tweeted about it Sulzberger released details. In a statement, he said, “I told the President directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.”
Trump kept raging. At a rally in Kansas City, he pointed out the reporters covering the event, and said, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people.” In Ohio, he called reporters “among the most dishonest human beings you will ever meet.” In late August, a California man was charged with threatening to shoot employees of the Boston Globe, in what Politico called “the clearest example yet of someone using President Donald Trump’s insults to target journalists.”
When journalists have told Sanders that Trump’s incendiary words might lead to their colleagues being murdered, she has refused to acknowledge this as a legitimate concern; instead, she has flipped the question and focussed on herself, noting that she has been likewise subjected to threats. Whatever friendliness she maintains with reporters offstage, she has publicly backed up Trump’s animus toward journalists.
On August 2nd, Ivanka Trump told an interviewer that she disagrees with separating families at the border, and doesn’t see journalists as “the enemy of the people.” At a subsequent briefing, Acosta, the CNN correspondent, decided to test Sanders’s independence. He challenged her to say that “the people who are gathered in this room” were “not the enemy of the people.”
The challenge bore a striking resemblance to a question that was asked at a televised press conference with Trump and Putin in Helsinki, in June, which Acosta had attended. Jonathan Lemire, of the Associated Press, had been widely praised after he asked Trump, “Would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin—would you denounce what happened in 2016, and would you warn him to never do it again?”
Sanders answered Acosta by reading from a statement: “Repeatedly—repeatedly—the media resorts to personal attacks without any content other than to incite anger. The media has attacked me personally on a number of occasions, including your own network.” She went on, “When I was hosted by the Correspondents’ Association, which almost all of you are members of, you brought a comedian up to attack my appearance and call me a traitor to my own gender.” Acosta pointed out that Sanders still hadn’t admitted that the press isn’t the enemy of the people. He told her, “We all get put in the meat grinder in this town.”
Sanders refused to say what Acosta wanted her to say; Acosta walked out. Later, on CNN, he declared that maybe “all journalists should go out on Pennsylvania Avenue and chant ‘We’re not the enemy of the people.’ ”
Sanders had just defended Trump’s attacks against the press by spreading what the Post once called an “urban myth.” She said, “The media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger. One of the worst cases was the reporting on the U.S. ability to listen to Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone in the late nineties. Because of that reporting, he stopped using that phone.” (This claim had been widely debunked.)
Late that night, Sanders tweeted that “Trump Derangement Syndrome” had become an “epidemic among Democrats.” The tweet garnered more than sixty-six thousand “likes” and eighteen thousand comments, including “I hate you sooooo much!” and “Good people don’t defend bad people.” Writing for NBCNews.com, Kurt Bardella, a former media consultant for Breitbart News, who quit in protest over the site’s dissemination of propaganda, urged her to resign, noting, “You know things are deteriorating when you are regurgitating conspiracy theories about Osama bin Laden to justify your boss’s obsession with weakening the First Amendment.” He also said, “Nothing is worth losing your own self-respect or betraying your moral compass.”
Soon after Sanders became press secretary, her father told reporters, “I know that she is going to be loyal to a fault.” Yet Trump’s loyalty to others is often fleeting. Many White House employees have experienced a moment that Spicer has called “the beginning of the end.” The Trump White House has seen unusual turnover—more than a hundred and fifty staffers who once worked for the President are now gone.
Sanders has lasted longer than many West Wing colleagues—her one-year anniversary as press secretary fell on July 21st—and her career prospects appear healthier than Spicer’s. Last November, when Senator Cotton was mentioned as a contender for the directorship of the C.I.A., Sanders was floated as his possible replacement in the Senate. If she leaves the White House, she could plausibly become a fixture on Fox News, or take a lucrative job in the private sector. One White House reporter told me that either path would allow her to leverage the fact that “she has a lot of access to the President and understands him as well as anyone.” Rex Nelson was not the only person to tell me, “I can absolutely see her as a future governor of Arkansas.” A figure close to Trump said that Sanders might even ascend to a Cabinet post; her allies include Mike Pompeo, the new C.I.A. director, who is also a devout Christian. Sanders often says, “Never say never.”
November’s midterm elections will determine whether the Republican Party retains control of Congress. A win for the Democrats may well bring impeachment proceedings against Trump. Conservative Christians, determined to keep Republicans in power, are planning their largest voter-mobilization effort yet. Sanders represents a vital link to that effort—the Washington Post has called her one of the nation’s most visible evangelicals.
In 2016, Trump won the support of eighty-one per cent of the white evangelicals who voted; a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that seventy-five per cent of evangelicals feel positive about him. This suggests an ongoing willingness to overlook the President’s character problems. Trump hasn’t galvanized evangelicals as much as evangelicals have found a figure willing to grant their wishes, especially in terms of appointing judges who oppose abortion and gay marriage. Sanders is clearly playing the long game. Last year, she appeared on a television show called “Pro-Life Weekly” and talked about the “monumental appointment” of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, which, she said, would have a “generational impact that will carry on long after the President is out of office in eight years.”
Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post, has written that, in Sanders’s lifetime, many “politicians have broken promises to Christian conservatives.” So far, Trump, who recently hosted a dinner for evangelicals, hasn’t broken his promises to them, leading some to proclaim his victory as evidence of the hand of God. Brian Kaylor, a former Baptist pastor who writes about religion and politics, recently said, of Sanders’s defenses of Trump, “It’s more than you are defending a politician, or even a President—you are defending God’s chosen leader for this time.”
Not long ago, as the media speculated whether Sanders had plans to leave her job, her husband told me, “Public service is very difficult. Sarah has witnessed that her whole life. You ask yourself all the time if it’s worth it. We always come back to the idea that, if good people don’t stay involved, bad people end up running the country.”
On August 26th, Sanders, for the first time, publicly marked a line between herself and Trump. When Senator John McCain died, Trump, who had mocked him for being “captured” in Vietnam, issued a pointedly stinting tweet; as with the Annapolis shooting, he lowered the White House flag only after being roundly criticized. That week, when a TMZ crew filmed Sanders leaving Reagan National Airport, she looked into the camera and called McCain an “American hero.”
The next day, however, she was back to being Trump’s messenger. During the frenzy over the anonymous Times Op-Ed, Sanders tweeted a condemnation of the media’s “wild obsession” with uncovering the author’s identity. This much was obvious: it wasn’t her. ♦