Sarah, we definitely knew ye

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is winding down her final days as President Trump’s press secretary. Many would say “good riddance.” some might ask, “Who comes next?”

The fact, believe it or not, is we probably will never do better than Sanders in this Administration. She has established the standard for a successful Trump press secretary: willing to lie about anything and please an audience of one.

Whoever follows her knows what makes a successful press secretary for Trump — be willing to say anything that will make him a happy fellow. No one else matters. Nothing else matters: not the truth, not the fact that your salary is paid by the taxpayers not by the President, not being respectful toward those reporters trying to do their jobs.

Sanders admitted lying to the special counsel when she said during a televised briefing that she had heard from “countless” FBI employees positively when Trump fired the FBI director. She admitted to the special counsel this was a “slip of the tongue” — probably the biggest literal slip in history. It’s not like a word was off in an answer. She flat-out made the whole thing up.

Having served as deputy press secretary to two presidents and head of press operations for a Cabinet member, the White House press secretary job, BS (before Sanders), served a few important purposes. He or she was speaking for the United States Government and the President of the Free World. It was an important job. Markets paid attention to every word. Foreign governments, too.

As a Cabinet press person, you looked to the daily briefings for guidance on issues you often talked about. As staff to a press secretary you were meticulous in finding out the truth before handing the press secretary talking points to answer questions, not wanting to give false information.

Often, the daily briefing set the agenda for the day for the Administration. Often, in your research for the truth, you came upon facts that countered what a Cabinet official was saying and you served as an early warning to the President that something was amiss. You never wanted to offend the Cabinet member, but you wanted to be sure you spoke truth.

Have other press secretaries lied? Probably, but not to the extent Sanders does. To her, a lie is a first reaction. To other press secretaries it was a response, that if you felt you had to lie, you’d probably resign first or convince the President and the chief of staff of a different, more honest answer. Call that “spin” — a word I always hated because it came to be perceived as lying. It isn’t. “Spin” is putting the best light on a dark situation. You can “spin” without lying.

Were there reporters the press office didn’t like in the past? I wouldn’t put it that way. I’d say there are reporters who weren’t as respected for their fairness (OK, that may qualify as “spin”). But were there reporters the press staff went out of their way to insult? No, not until this press secretary.

She has set the office back decades. She has ended the daily briefing. Now, I always thought the briefing could be improved, but I never thought it should be abandoned.

For one, when I was in the press office, we didn’t not allow live TV coverage of briefings unless it served our purpose — a statement we wanted on camera so the press secretary was delivering the message directly on the TV — say a bombing. Mike McCurry, one of the best press secretaries to serve, opened the briefings to live TV during President Clinton’s term. And it served McCurry’s purposes at that moment in time (defending his boss during the Lewinsky matter). Later, it did not, once you begin to do it live, it’s hard to stop because the TV news folks think you’re taking away something they need (you are). McCurry today would say he made a mistake opening to cameras as a habit.

Of course when he did it, the only cable news network was CNN and there wasn’t the prolific 24/7 talking heads filling up the airtime which also changed the nature of the press briefing. When you are live on TV, you sweat each answer much more. The media, too, changes personalities. Off camera briefings typically were more serious and the occasional joke taken in context. On camera, you joke only if you think it serves a purpose — say to change the environment in the briefing room. Live, some correspondents grandstand for their bosses or the public. Do it the wrong way, and that footage is repeated forever on TV.

Bottom line: the public loses when there is no briefing. They lose because they aren’t getting the information they deserve for their tax dollars. The Administration also loses because often, to get a concrete answer ready for the briefing, you might speed up a decision process; or drop a potentially embarrassing topic from the policy review. You also can’t go “on background” or “off the record”, which serves a useful purpose sometimes by giving more detail than you can say on the record. On TV, you can’t be on background. So, the reporters often lose a useful tool to better give their stories context.

So, Sarah Sanders may have killed off forever one of the most important traditions the government has had since the Eisenhower presidency — a way to hear the truth about what’s going on with their government.

So, Sarah, let me say on the record: thanks for nothing.

Former deputy White House press secretary (Reagan and Bush 41) and former head of communications at Republican Natl Committee. My blog:

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