On Thursday, President Trump tweeted that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would be “going home” at the end of June, where he hopes that “she decides to run for Governor of Arkansas.” Sanders originally joined the administration as deputy White House press secretary, where she soon proved more competent than her boss, Sean Spicer.
In an administration known for its profound turnover rate, Sanders’s departure is one of the more high-profile exits of 2019 — along with former chief of staff John Kelly, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and White House communications director Bill Shine. To help understand how Sanders set the tone for the combative Trump administration, here’s a timeline of the public skirmishes of her career in the West Wing.
The Firing of James Comey
Sanders gave her first White House press briefing on May 5, 2017, when former White House press secretary Sean Spicer was on Naval Reserve duty; four days later, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Sanders responded well amid the chaos, meaning that she showed a knack for deflecting questions. When Comey accused the president of giving “shifting explanations” about his dismissal, Sanders defended Trump: “I can definitively say the president is not a liar, and I think it’s frankly insulting that question would be asked.”
By July 21, Spicer was out, and Sanders was granted the job the same day. Eventually, Spicer would tell the Washington Post just why his successor was so good in the role: “Sarah has done a fantastic job of keeping in line with understanding how to effectively communicate what the president’s thoughts are at any given time, recognizing that it is a very dynamic and fluid situation in many cases,” Spicer said, diplomatically describing Trump’s decision-making process. “What she has done is, she has realized, you can’t get in trouble for what you don’t say.”
The Rob Porter Scandal
In February 2018, an interview was published in which former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was accused of domestic abuse from both of his former wives. Reports also emerged that the White House was aware of the issue, as the FBI had told officials about the details the previous summer. The allegations, especially sensitive considering the president’s own allegations of sexual misconduct voiced by 23 women, infuriated Sanders, who reportedly “cursed and yelled” at former White House counsel Don McGahn for not giving her all the details before she gave her initial public statements. Still, after Porter’s forced resignation, Sanders did not alter her statements to the press.
The Stormy Daniels Scandal
In March 2018, Stormy Daniels filed a lawsuit against the president, claiming that the non-disclosure agreement she had signed after their alleged affair was voided because Trump had not personally signed it. Discussing the event at the podium, Sanders first told reporters that arbitration over the suit was won “in the president’s favor,” which was the first time that anyone in the White House admitted the connection between Daniels and Trump. As the scandal broke, Sanders then had to manage the impossible task of keeping her account straight with that of the president and his new lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
It’s not easy to keep the attention of a group of children while on camera, but Sanders did her best when she read the Easter story at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2018. “Men who didn’t like Jesus sent soldiers to arrest him,” Sanders read, followed by a poorly timed smile, considering where she was at in the narrative.
At the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2018, comedian Michelle Wolf pinned Sarah Huckabee Sanders as one of the primary targets of the evening. Wolf said that she found Sanders “very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
Wolf immediately came under attack for her treatment of the White House press secretary, with critics alleging that she had attacked Sanders’s physical appearance. Critical statements emerged from the president, Maggie Haberman, and Mika Brzezinski, and the White House Correspondents Association distanced itself from Wolf. “That evening says a whole lot more about her than it does about me,” Sanders responded on Fox News. Others in the press, including Joan Walsh of CNN and Amanda Hess of the New York Times, defended Wolf’s comments. “Women, comedians, and the media all grabbed each other’s hair and threw each other to the floor while men watched and cheered,” wrote Vulture’s Nell Scovell. “And that was hitting the trifecta for President Trump, who has continually dismissed all these groups.”
“It Is Very Biblical to Enforce the Law”
In June 2018, as reports emerged that the Department of Homeland Security was separating migrant children from their parents after they were detained at the border, Jim Acosta asked Sanders about the practice, citing a comment from Jeff Sessions in which he said that the effort could be justified by looking to the Bible.
“The attorney general, earlier today, said that somehow there’s a justification for this in the Bible,” Acosta told Sanders. “Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?”
“I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing,” Sanders replied. “I can’t —”
“Is it a moral policy, in your view?” Acosta asked.
“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” Sanders replied. “That is, actually, repeated a number of times throughout the Bible. However, this —”
“But where in the Bible does it say —” Acosta began.
“Hold on, Jim. If you’ll let me finish.”
“— it’s okay to take children away from their parents?”
“Again, I’m not going to comment on the attorney’s specific comments that I haven’t seen.”
“You just said it’s in the Bible to follow the law.”
“That’s not what I said.”
The Mueller Report
In some of her first comments at the White James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in June 2017, Sanders claimed that “countless members of the FBI” did not have confidence in recently ousted director James Comey. But speaking to special counsel investigations under oath, Sanders conceded that the claim “was not founded on anything.”
The End of the White House Press Briefing
Though a pattern of deflection and occasional outright lies are a part of Sanders’s legacy in the White House, perhaps the Trump administration’s greatest damage to the position of press secretary will be its abdication of the role almost entirely. In the past 200 days, only eight briefings were held. The last briefing was on March 11, 98 days ago, when Sanders briefed the press corps on the president’s 2020 budget proposal.