Sarah Sanders and the Evolution of the White House Press Secretary
In one memorable exchange at the White House in August, the CNN correspondent Jim Acosta invited Sanders to repudiate Trump’s contention that the press is the “enemy of the people.” She wouldn’t do it. “I’m here to speak on behalf of the president,” she said, “and he’s made his comments clear.” Joe Lockhart, another former Clinton press secretary, told me that she “played a huge role in demonizing the press as the enemy of the people.”
Trump pulled her into his inner circle and came to rely on her counsel. At the summit meeting last year in Singapore with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump complained privately to aides about all the TV attention paid to Kim’s unexpected walking tour downtown. Trump worried that the press coverage might give Kim an edge in the negotiations. He told aides that he wanted his handshake greeting with Kim moved up so that the networks would stop airing the footage, a former White House official told me yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal conversations. Changing the timing of the handshake posed logistical difficulties, and top aides, including then–Chief of Staff John Kelly, tried to talk the president out of it.
Trump dug in—until he heard from Sanders. She told him that if they altered the timing, the historic greeting would not unfold in prime time back in the United States, the official said.
Don’t give up that coveted prime-time slot, she told him. Trump relented.
“She thinks the world of him,” the ex-official told me. “She understood her role as that of an adviser, supporter, and confidant, and his as the president who made the decisions. She’s very respectful to him.”
Once Trump leaves the scene, will the press secretary’s traditional role be revived? It’s possible that the norm-shattering 45th president may have killed off the job for good. Past presidents disliked the press and tried to manipulate the media, but they recognized that accommodating reporters as best they could was in their interest. In his book Washington, the author Ron Chernow writes that in 1792, the nation’s first president complained that newspaper coverage was “an evil which must be placed in opposition to the infinite benefits resulting from a free press.” Nearly two centuries later, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter wrote in his memoirs about a meeting with advisers in which they told him that relations with the press corps were “especially bad” and “unlikely to improve.” They cautioned, though, that “I could not win a war with the press.”
In the social-media era, presidents may conclude that they can indeed win that war. They may see no reason to empower press secretaries with divided loyalties. Presidents now have abundant new tools to marginalize the press and present themselves in the most favorable light. Obama’s White House would limit press access to the president and instead distribute official photos that professional news photographers likened to propaganda. Trump’s Twitter and Facebook audience numbers in the tens of millions, giving him a megaphone outstripping that of many news outlets.
The title may live on; the cozy West Wing office with the fireplace may endure. But when future press secretaries exit through that back door, their attention is likely to be firmly fixed on the Oval Office to their right—not the press-briefing room to their left.