As White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders failed the public. In the rare press conferences she held in her two-year tenure, she lied about matters ranging from the FBI’s reaction to James Comey’s firing to Donald Trump’s nonexistent conversations with Mexico to Trump’s job creation numbers to his hush-money payments. It seems urgent, then, that we—the baffled and underserved public—figure out what she understood her job to be and how she was effective at it.
A couple of examples might help. In a May 7 interview Sanders did with an ABC news podcast (she has not held a press briefing since March), John Santucci asked: “Should we take the president’s tweet from this past weekend as an order to Bill Barr to not allow Robert Mueller to testify?”
Sanders first turned to a passive crutch: “I think that’s a determination to be made at this point,” she said. “But he said it,” Santucci replied.
The press secretary’s response is fascinating: “But that’s the president’s feeling on the matter and the reason is because we consider this as a case closed, as a finished process. And I again I think that most Americans think that this is finished. They’re sick and tired of hearing about it.”
Sanders’ awkward sentences might make her approach look artless, but this is a pretty smart (and illuminating) example of her ability to reroute questions until they’re no longer about the subject at hand. The question was whether the president’s Tweet amounted to an order to Barr. First, Sanders tries to bluff—nothing to see here—but it fails. Her next move is to defend Trump’s right to personal feelings. And here is a potent rhetorical move: Sanders implies that Trump’s feelings—to which he’s perfectly entitled—have no effect on his policy. It’s akin to the argument made, after the release of the Mueller report, that Trump did not obstruct justice because no one actually listened to his requests to obstruct. He was just venting. “We consider this as a case closed,” she adds, the we effectively recasting the president’s feelings as a consensus position.
It’s a delicate cake-having-and-eating moment. The feelings whose significance she underplayed a sentence earlier—denying that they had policy implications—suddenly have institutional and semi-official status. And they are in touch with the American people’s. In the space of three sentences, then, Trump has been cast as a) the president, b) a private man with the right to wounded feelings he won’t act upon c) an official channeling the official position and d) a man in tune with the hearts of the people. She’s muddled the premise of the question—whether Trump’s complaint will have public consequences—so thoroughly that follow-up questions seem impossible. No one has done more to normalize Trump’s tantrums or to manage their political significance by making any serious inquiry into them seem petty and off-base.
An exchange with a reporter at a Dec. 18, 2018 press briefing demonstrates how firmly Sanders refused to grant that any concern might overrule or matter more than Trump.
Reporter: Does it concern the president that Flynn lied to the FBI and was working for a foreign government?
Sanders: Not when it comes to things that have anything to do with the president. The activities that [Flynn] is said to—and I’ll, again, we’ll let the court make that determination—to have engaged in, don’t have anything to do with the president. … The only reason that the president is the president is because he was a better candidate and beat Hillary Clinton. We also know that the president never colluded with Russia.
As deflections go, this is impressive, and it performs many of the same moves as the first example: circumscribing the president’s sphere of influence, hinting at facts yet to be determined, but appealing to a supposedly shared understanding of that which is not factual at all: Trump’s uncontaminated legitimacy. When the reporter asks again about Flynn, Sanders tries, as she would later with ABC, first to evade.
Sanders: Look, there’s certainly concern, but that’s something for the court to make that determination, and we’ll let them do that.
But the reporter follows up one more time, noting that the president has commented extensively on that ongoing matter by saying positive things about Flynn. Sanders has no choice but to escalate.
Sanders: It’s perfectly acceptable for the president to make a positive comment about somebody while we wait to see what the court’s determination is.
Pressed, Sanders here resorts to her masterstroke, making the controversial inarguable by simple declaration—perfectly acceptable. The president is not, on this understanding, someone with any responsibility to protect the public or to root out wrongdoing. His publicly expressed sentiments have no bearing at all on the carriage of justice or his attitude toward it. He’s a private man who has every right to make a positive comment about someone regardless of what he stands accused of, as the facts, ever elusive, await some vaporous determination.
So that’s the reality-distorting rhetoric of Sanders, and why the headline on a Margaret Sullivan retrospective calls her the “Queen of Gaslighting.” But the secret to Sanders’ success wasn’t just to sanitize the president’s every impulse as commonsensical and justified; it was to woodenly fail to register any acknowledgement at all of his excesses. Even Sean Spicer stammered and sweat. By treating his inflammatory remarks and actions as utterly commonplace, Sanders modeled to the public how to metabolize the outrageous as if it were normal. This was a performance, of course: Sanders’ impassivity was selective, and she was adept at acting like it was the media’s reaction that was strange.
Sanders didn’t just defend the president from the effects of his own statements; she offered herself as a kind of prosaic presence whose function it was to act like anything Trump did, no matter how shocking, was no big deal. She exemplified the stolid approval Trump wanted for everything from family separations to tax cuts for the rich. As her tenure ends, we can now see how much her reliance on reassuring phrases like “make a determination”—and unblinkingly calling lies differences of opinion and hush payments not worth discussing—provided a kind of muted laugh track to the terrible show being forced upon America. Rather than laugh at unfunny jokes, she loyally normalized despicable conduct.
Her value—and Scaramucci never understood this—was her ability to do this in a distinctly un-Trumpish way. Rather than be sensational or offensive or inflammatory, Sanders was staid and dull. In an era characterized by “White House in chaos” headlines, her repressive calm served an essential function. “Sanders possesses a unique talent that, heretofore, has not quite been considered a talent: She can deaden a room,” Jason Schwartz wrote at Politico. As a public servant, Sanders was abysmal. As a public speaker, she was subpar. But as the first line of Trump’s defense, she was absolutely indispensable.
Her departure also means one less woman playing a particular role on the front lines of the Trump-is-normal campaign. Kellyanne Conway was the first to deploy a particular form of unflappable femininity in the service of making Trump’s feelings and actions palatable to the public.
Trump seems to need this. His masculinist fantasy of himself is structurally dimorphic; it requires an approving female presence to authorize and excuse and interpret. He needs a Sanders to explain that his saying the U.S. is the “highest taxed nation in the world” was not a lie because the U.S. is “the highest-taxed, corporate taxed, in the developed economy,” and he needs a Sanders to project that people are fools to think these do not mean the same thing. He needs a Conway to launder his lies as “alternative facts.” Above all, though, he has always had women validate and center not what he does, but his license to feel things, without limit or consequence.
And as Trump’s public pronouncements continue to throb with self-obsession and self-concern, the best ally he can possibly have is a calm and effortlessly authoritative woman who parrots his talking points—mirroring his narcissism at one remove and on his behalf.