The Complicity of Sarah Huckabee Sanders


In Politico, a new profile of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary who shares her employer’s dedication to half-truths and outright fictions, attempts to unmask the woman whose singular ability to “deaden a room” is perhaps her greatest strength. It is a piece that substitutes friendly anecdotes about her upbringing and enduring loyalty for what is the most relevant and meaningful of the qualities that suit her to the job: she largely shares Trump’s politics and will do what’s necessary to help her boss execute on the bigoted vision that drew her to the campaign in the first place.

Those hoping to understand more about Sanders in her own words will leave disappointed: She declined to speak to Politco’s Jason Schwartz, so all we have are third-party observations of Sanders’s behavior during the daily White House press briefings and recollections of those in and around her to piece together a portrait of a woman, who, by all accounts, has changed the nature of the job she holds.

From Politico:

Sanders possesses a unique talent that, heretofore, has not quite been considered a talent: She can deaden a room. You almost have to be in the White House briefing room, a claustrophobic space packed tight with reporters and photographers, to appreciate her art. When the bright lights are on and the cameras are snapping and everyone is yelling, “Sarah! Sarah!” with their hands in the air, a palpable electricity flows through it. The moment Sanders unleashes her trademark monotone, the energy drains.

That Sanders would be a willing flack for this administration has everything to do with her politics—those she grew up around and those she developed early in her political career. Her father, Mike Huckabee, is a career politician whose deeply conservative views and faux-populist “outsider” status helped prime the national stage for a Trump-like candidate. From childhood, Sanders had an exclusive behind the scenes look at what it takes to mount a political campaign for such a figure:

In 1992, her father, Mike Huckabee, ran his first statewide campaign, as a Republican for U.S. Senate from Arkansas. “From the time she was in elementary school, she saw politics up close and personal,” Huckabee says. “She was involved in it, everything from going with me to campaign on weekends and passing out fliers at county fairs.”
The pastor-turned-candidate would hand his daughter $5 and a stack of fliers, and tell her that once all the fliers were gone, she could treat herself to some cotton candy or a ride. That first campaign did not go well, but he came back a year later to win a special election for lieutenant governor, and then the year after that to defend his seat. It marked his third statewide campaign in three years. Sarah was 11. “She was always wanting to be in the room,” Huckabee recalls. “I can remember her standing around the kitchen table listening to Dick Morris explain crosstabs.”

A childhood spent in the trenches of various failed and successful political runs—including her father’s brief bid for the Republican nomination in 2016—were the first steps in her path to the Trump White House.

Sanders worked for her father’s 2016 campaign, but Sanders had to find “a new political home” after he withdrew from the race. In the words of her husband Bryan Sanders, she was driven by a desire “to do everything in our power to defeat Hillary Clinton.”

The Clintons cast a long shadow in the press in Arkansas, where Sanders and her family are from, but it wasn’t just a personal vendetta against that particular political enterprise that motivated her. What this profile goes softest on are Sanders’s own beliefs, which, for all her professional savvy, are largely the same as Trump’s. He also reminded her of her dad:

She liked Trump’s chances, as well as his message, her husband says. “Her dad and Trump were saying a lot of the same things,” Bryan Sanders says. “They were talking about how Washington needs a big change. They were both running very anti-establishment campaigns.”

To praise Sanders for reaching such heights with her career—while raising children and navigating the political waters as a woman, no less!—ignores a more simple explanation for her place in this administration. Sanders is loyal to Trump’s vision for the country because she shares it. When she may disagree on a personal level, her loyalty is motivated by a long game that holds Trump as a useful tool. Sander’s evangelical faith is her lodestar; according to her husband, Bryan Sanders, “she liked what he was saying about abortion and religious liberty, as well as the types of judges he was promising to appoint, including to the Supreme Court.”

She has also become something of an operator behind the scenes, though her folksy bluntness and diversions at the briefing podium may obscure that:

She has become one of the few people able to actually talk with the president, and even move his position, multiple officials say. They speak before most briefings, and while she can be direct, one senior administration official describes the particularly deft way Sanders has developed of pushing back on Trump.
Typically, she does not bluntly disagree with him, but walks him through how the press might react to something. For instance, the official says, if Sanders objects to a strategy Trump has suggested, she might say, “Well, here’s what the follow-up question on that issue is going to be, so how would we answer that?” It’s a tactic that allows her to redirect the president without having to directly tell him he’s wrong.

While it’s great for Sarah Huckabee Sanders that she can manage the president so deftly as to be able to potentially influence policy, it is less great for the American public. Sanders is an extremely conservative Christian woman who views herself as the victim of an increasingly outraged liberal population intent on tearing her down for her religious beliefs. She shares Trump’s bunker mentality and his flare for the politics of white grievance. “If someone says something about another faith, particularly liberals come to their defense in a raging motion,” she told the Washington Post in 2017. “but if someone attacks a Christian, it’s perfectly fine. At some point we became a culture that said that was okay.”

It doesn’t matter that Sanders can, as Schwartz points out, show her human side by joking with reporters behind the scenes or that she is occasionally aggrieved by her unpredictable boss—that carefully crafted facet of her personality is part of the reason she’s so effective.

The most revealing lines of the profile come near the middle, and are delivered by her husband. After the piece recounts the lies she has told on behalf of the administration, Bryan Sanders says: “All I know is that Sarah is never going to do anything that violates her conscience… She’s never been asked to do something that violates her conscience.” It’s worth taking him at his word here. Respect the hustle, if you must, but understand that the game is dangerous.

Read the rest of the profile here.

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