At Rare Steakhouse’s location in Washington, D.C., a dry-aged, grassfed, locally sourced porterhouse steak will run you $125. A whole Maine lobster is a steal, by comparison; it only costs $58. If you would rather not wash down your steak with an $8 Heineken, it’s possible to buy a bottle of Cabernet for $700. It is the sort of place, where, on Monday, you could catch a brief glimpse of Sarah Huckabee Sanders from a distance. The Columbia Journalism Review reported that the expensive D.C. restaurant was the scene of a farewell gathering for Sanders, who recently announced that she was stepping down from her post as White House press secretary. Anita Kumar, the Politico reporter who helped organize the event, previously told HuffPost that the event would be a “casual gathering for reporters who have engaged with Sarah, many of whom have done so for years.” Such events, Kumar added, occurred during other presidential administrations.
We don’t know the names of every reporter who attended Monday evening’s event. It’s unlikely that everyone who attended did so to curry favor with Sanders or other White House officials, and there’s no sin in hobnobbing with the people you cover as long as you show up ready to work. But the details, as CJR and the Times reported them on Tuesday, were damning.
Some journalists “huddled to grab selfies with Sanders,” CJR’s Amanda Darrach reported. Other anonymous reporters justified themselves to Darrach over drinks. One told her that gathering was like “the end of a battle, or a decent game of rugby, where at the end of the day you shake hands.” Another said: “Everybody has their issue with Sarah Sanders, but if you can’t have a drink with somebody, then all of civilization has broken down.” In comments to the Times, multiple journalists declined to be identified. The overall impression is a chummy one — as if Sanders were a co-worker departing for other ventures, or hadn’t justified the Trump administration’s human-rights abuses for the last two years. But even this isn’t so unusual. When Ari Fleischer left the Bush White House, he told the Times, reporters gave him a cake. Farewell parties, he added, are “what polite people do with each other. You can still clash. You can still differ. You can still be professionals who hold the administration to account and go to a goodbye party together.”
Fleischer, who lied to the press and sold an illegal war to the public, is perhaps not the best judge of accountability. Despite these faults, he is a frequent sight on cable news, which grants his views more credibility than history suggests they deserve. Some members of the press appear to be slow learners. Bad enough to celebrate Fleischer with cake; equally bad, perhaps, for their successors to learn nothing from the mistake, and take selfies with Sanders over cocktails and wine. We are talking about the Trump administration, after all, which had in Sanders one of its most dogged and most visible public propagandists. If there was ever a time to reject business as usual, it should be now.
As journalists gathered at Rare Steakhouse to say so long to Sanders, some of their colleagues were reporting on the horrific conditions in migrant detention centers on the southern border, which have been aptly described as concentration camps. The Associated Press reported that 300 migrant children detained in Clint, Texas, lived in filth, suffered from disease, and didn’t have enough food to eat or water to drink. Some had gone weeks without a bath or clean clothes to wear. Sanders did not hold a briefing on the matter for reporters, but it’s easy to imagine what she would have told them if she had. Last June, she defended the administration’s family separation by telling the press that it was “very biblical to enforce the law.”
Maybe her record doesn’t bother journalists who work for conservative outlets. They at least have a recognizable interest in maintaining a relationship with Sanders that isn’t just civil but warm. (Rumor has it that she’s considering a run for governor of Arkansas.) But journalists who work for serious news outlets should understand better than anyone that politics isn’t a game. The press has a responsibility to the public, which it cannot fulfill if it does not grasp the real stakes of its relationship to the White House. Nobody dies, usually, in a rugby match. Rugby can’t take food stamps away from the poor or lock a child in a cage; those are real-world horrors, and that’s what Sanders defended when she bothered to hold press briefings at all. Civilization is already breaking down, and it has been breaking down for a long time. Deference and civility did not goad her into doing her job, and she’s not entitled to them now, as she brings her sordid service to an end.