Is Sarah Huckabee Sanders the Future of the Republican Party?
Rare is the Trump Administration official who hasn’t burned out or been run out. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, who will leave her post at the end of the month, lasted longer than almost anyone. If she had stayed through July, she would have passed the two-year mark in what has been called, even during placid Presidencies, an impossible job.
Donald Trump complicated the role tenfold. As I reported last September, in a Profile of Sanders for The New Yorker, no previous White House press secretary answered for a President who tweeted his id; who found something to like about Nazis; who lied habitually, and seemingly without consequence; who dismissed journalists as the “enemy of the people”; and who shrugged off a hostile foreign nation’s attempts to sway a U.S. Presidential election. Yet Sanders defended Trump through one appalling moment after another. She showed a willingness to engage in divisive forms of televised political combat with the press, and had an appetite and aptitude for doing so.
Republican voters admired her tactics: eight out of ten view her favorably, according to a Gallup poll from 2018. Democrats, alienated and outraged, wanted to know: Why does she do it? (And when will she please stop?) Surely, Sanders did not condone the President’s vile comments about women, especially his bragging about grabbing them “by the pussy.” Surely, she saw the danger in an American President professing admiration for a barbarous tyrant like Kim Jong Un. (Trump’s chumminess with Kim is now a campaign point. Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic candidate for President, told an audience the other day, “You will not see me exchanging love letters, on White House letterhead, with a brutal dictator who starves and murders his own people.”)
The depth of Sanders’s allegiance to Trump became clear—even if her reasons for it didn’t—by virtue of the fact that she stayed on the job through some of the Administration’s most appalling realities: the President’s defense of white nationalists in Charlottesville; the separation of migrant children from their families; the more than ten thousand false or misleading statements the President has made since taking office. A curious disconnect is that, while critics assail Sanders for peddling lies and denigrating the press during televised briefings, many of the White House reporters who consistently interact with her have described her to me as decent and honest in private. Pundits dismiss the characterization as evidence of “access journalism,” where reporters go easy on officials whom they rely on as sources. Reporters who know Sanders told me it was more than that. They said that they had a markedly different, and productive, relationship with her off-camera, when Trump wasn’t watching, which suggested that she may have provided ballast against some of the President’s worst tendencies. When they had questions, she usually got them answers. I would say that they “liked” her, if likability, as it relates to women, weren’t such a loaded term.
Sanders once told me that she never backs politicians whose positions she disagrees with. She likely defended Trump because, ultimately, she approved of him. Last week, when she retweeted the President’s announcement of her impending departure, she declared pride in what Trump has “accomplished.” She might have been talking about the appointments of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, whose presence jeopardizes the standing of Roe v. Wade. Or she could have been talking about the economy, or the Administration’s ruthless and increasingly deadly stance on immigration, or the decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city that Sanders has visited many times with her father, Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist preacher and Presidential candidate who now leads religious group tours there with his wife, Janet. One White House correspondent told me that Sanders is a “true conservative. She believes in toughness at the border. She’s not a closet moderate.”
Sanders leaves Washington with the name recognition that comes with having polarized the American public. Sean Spicer, her predecessor, departed the position as the butt of jokes; Sanders leaves with public praise from Trump, who, last week, tweeted that she would be a “fantastic” governor of Arkansas. In August, Sanders will move back to her native state with her husband, Bryan, a Republican strategist, and their three small children, and will seriously consider running. On Sunday, she told me, “For three and a half years I was focussed on serving the President on his campaign and in the White House, and now we’ll take some time to reflect, spend time as a family, and decide what’s next.”
The next governor’s race in Arkansas is scheduled for 2022. Three years is an eternity in politics, but it is plenty of time to get settled, raise money, and, as some prospective candidates do, publish a memoir. It is also enough time for Sanders, who is still in her thirties, to decide whether she would govern like her father, like Trump, or in her own way.
Sanders’s formative political experience was the tenure of her father, who served as the governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007. Huckabee, who had been elected lieutenant governor, in 1993, ascended when Governor Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat, was convicted of fraud in the Whitewater scandal. Sanders had just finished the eighth grade when she, her parents, and one of her two brothers moved from southwest Arkansas to the governor’s mansion, in Little Rock. Sarah was given Chelsea Clinton’s old bedroom; a decorator remade the space in lavender and green.
Arkansas was turning from Democrat to Republican, but Little Rock was predominantly blue. Huckabee’s critics called him “the accidental governor.” The family received hate mail, and the newspapers ran savage articles about goat barbecues on the mansion lawn. “It was a hostile situation at best,” Huckabee’s wife, Janet, told me, last May. “It was just not fun. And there was not a thing Mike or I could do to make the kids happy—or anybody up here happy. Because we shouldn’t have been here.” In “Huckabee: The Authorized Biography,” Scott Lamb writes that Huckabee “had such negative interaction with a few members of the media that it set him on edge against them.” Huckabee would eventually talk about holding reporters “accountable for their actions” for reporting material that he deemed untrue. Lamb writes, “For Huckabee, the issue was not that the journalists were coming from the left or were Democrats, but that he perceived them to be unprofessional and had flawed ethics. Huckabee’s lifelong habit of making friends out of enemies suddenly had no effect on these people, and it frustrated him.”
John Brummett, a liberal political columnist in Arkansas, who has written vicious things about Mike and Janet Huckabee, told me that he likes, and in some ways admires, Sanders. “The thing about the Huckabees is that they are just loaded up with resentments,” he said. Their “narrative of the world” is that “‘everybody’s against us, everybody’s looking down on us. Yeah, we’re flawed people, but we’re good, God-fearing people, we’re not phony and élitist, and yet they’ve got their thumb on us, either making fun of us or keeping us down.’ ”
Brummett sensed that same dynamic in Sanders’s work for Trump. “Sarah’s got that chip on her shoulder. I think she justifies a lot of what she does for Trump by saying people look down on him not economically but culturally,” he told me. “She’s still standing up for the outsider. She’s the post-Clinton attempted reformer who is being mistreated by cultural élites and snobs.”
Yet even Brummett remembered Huckabee as a governor who was—from the perspective of a liberal—“pretty good.” In 1997, at a public commemoration of the integration of Central High School, he spoke alongside the Clintons, delivering an address that Ebony magazine called “perhaps the strongest statement of the day,” and which the Times called “the strongest denunciation of his state’s past sins.” Huckabee’s commitment to public schools was evident, and, in 2005, he supported legislation to award immigrants in-state college tuition or scholarships, regardless of their legal status. When a state senator and Baptist minister wanted to deny benefits to immigrants, Huckabee called the bill “un-Christian” and “race-baiting.” Time named Huckabee to their “Top 5 Governors” list, and Governing magazine named him its Public Official of the Year, for the “compassionate conservatism” he displayed by embracing seventy-five thousand Hurricane Katrina refugees who sought shelter in Arkansas.
When Huckabee ran for President, in 2008, he appealed to evangelical Christians with his “unlikely amalgam of populism, conservative policies and peerless religious credentials,” Time reported. Huckabee stunned the field by winning Iowa. Outspent by his key competitors, including the eventual nominee, John McCain, he soon left the race. Later, he complained that his instincts on the economy had not been properly respected, citing the “disdain that I experienced from the élites.” Huckabee chafed at press coverage that he found snobbish, such as when reporters disclosed that he ironed his own suits and collected Marriott Rewards points.
Sanders had always travelled with her father for campaign appearances. She watched Huckabee pitch himself as the son of a firefighter and mechanic who “worked hard, lifted heavy things, and got his hands dirty” and heard him espouse populist messages, like “I get a little tired of hearing how the Democrats care so much for the working guy, as if all Republicans grew up with silk stockings and silver spoons.” In college, at Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkansas, Sanders majored in political science and led the student senate. During the George W. Bush Administration, she moved to Washington and worked for the Department of Education. In 2007, she returned to Arkansas, to help her father run for President. “Sarah basically was that campaign,” a journalist who closely observed the race told me, last year. “She was just incredibly impressive. I always admired her as a really good person, as someone who was working hard to do everything right. She wasn’t motivated by anything that I disrespected.”
After her father’s defeat, Sanders worked as a political consultant in Little Rock. In early 2010, she got a job offer from John Boozman, a Republican congressman from Arkansas, who had once employed her brother John Mark. Boozman, who was running for U.S. Senate, faced seven challengers in the G.O.P. primary. At one point, he got hung up in Washington and couldn’t attend a debate back home. Sanders appeared in his place, the lone woman among seven men. Brummett, the columnist, who attended that debate, told me that Sanders proceeded to “wipe them all off the map.” Boozman won the primary without a runoff and, with Sanders handling his campaign, handily unseated the popular Democratic incumbent, Blanche Lincoln. Time named Sanders to the “40 Under 40” list of young “rising stars of American politics.”
Her father became a weekend-talk-show host on Fox News. He decided to enter the 2016 Presidential race. Sanders served as his campaign manager. After a poor showing in the Iowa primary, Huckabee tweeted his surrender. Huckabee and Trump knew each other through Fox News and were friendly—in one televised debate, Huckabee bragged that he was wearing a Trump-branded tie.
Soon after leaving the race, Huckabee travelled to Atlanta with Sanders, and they met Trump on his private jet. Trump hoped for a Huckabee endorsement, but Huckabee could not yet offer it; he had given up his Fox program and a radio show he’d been hosting in order to run for President, and now he was pursuing opportunities that prevented him from endorsing anyone. Huckabee suggested that Trump hire Sanders, telling him, “This is much better than my endorsement.”
Trump needed a strong link to evangelicals and women; Sanders wanted to back a candidate whom she believed could succeed where her father had failed. As I reported last year, the idea of running against Clinton may have been particularly enticing to Sanders. As one former White House adviser told me, “In Republican politics, taking down the Clinton machine is the ultimate end-all, be-all goal.”
Sanders started doing regional TV-news appearances for Trump, as a surrogate. Occasionally, she worked out of campaign headquarters, at Trump Tower, in Manhattan. “She was a respected voice with some of the people we were struggling with the most at that point, the conservative base,” one former campaign official told me. After the election, Spicer hired Sanders as his principal chief deputy. Spicer failed spectacularly. On July 21, 2017, Sanders replaced him.
The media declared her “less startlingly terrible” than Spicer. At first, Sanders appeared relaxed at the podium and pleased to be there. She gave longish answers and attempted to add personal touches. By wishing her daughter happy birthday in public, she reminded everyone that she was the first White House press secretary who was also a mom. A few times, she started briefings by reading letters from Trump supporters, including a nine-year-old boy called Pickle. The letters came off as propaganda or filibustering. But, at a panel discussion at George Washington University, the Fox News correspondent John Roberts told the audience that, under Sanders, the media’s relationship with the Trump White House had improved. April Ryan, who covers the White House for American Urban Radio Networks and is a CNN political analyst, replied, “We all skip through the daisies and watch the butterflies every day, don’t we?” Everyone laughed.
In Arkansas, Sanders’s friends and family cheered her stalwart defense of Trump. Don and Nancy Bingham, who were the directors of the Arkansas governor’s mansion while Sanders was growing up there, told me last year that they adored the Huckabees, because they were “real.” I visited the Binghams in their home, in Conway, Arkansas, one bright summer afternoon. Don is a trained chef and harpist; he and Nancy author cookbooks. They once owned a tea room called Zinzendorf’s, named for Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf because, as Don put it, “Oh, honey, the Moravian movement.” He explained, “We’re avid readers, and I particularly like the Puritan writers. Those people were suffering a lot, so their writings were deeper.”
Sanders got her “bulldog tenacity” from her parents, they told me. Nancy appreciated her press briefings. “She’s the same every day, and that’s very important,” she said. “If you’re in that kind of position, you can’t be wishy-washy.”
“They’ll chew you up and spit you out,” Don said.
Sanders also reminded them of her maternal grandmother, a single mother of five who was elected the court clerk of Hempstead County, Arkansas. Nancy said, “That was one strong lady. She did not mind telling you how the cow ate the cabbage.” Don said that Sanders, too, was “so genuine,” but “not demanding—never demanding.”
We were drinking coffee that Nancy had served on a tray with fine cups and saucers. She brought up Trump. “If you work for a man as flamboyant as our President, how could you not get flak?” she said. “But that’s your boss—you honor him, respect him. Sarah knows what it means to be a good employee, to honor the man she works for.”
During that trip, I also visited with Sanders’s aunt and uncle, Pat and Jim Harris. (Pat, a high-school drama teacher, is Mike Huckabee’s sister.) Jim told me, “Living through her father’s ten and a half years as governor was good training for Sarah, because there were so many people who were hostile. It’s not to the extent that it is with Donald Trump, but it was training for how to develop a thick skin against people who are just filled with hatred for a Republican.”
At one point, I asked Brummett, the liberal columnist, about Sanders’s performance as press secretary. He said, “She knows she’s lying, but I’m sure she thinks that sometimes more is made of it, in her case. That fits the narrative of ‘I’m up against it because of who I am and where I come from and what I represent.’ ”
Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the Times, once told me, “What’s unique to this White House is the intensity and ferocity on the part of the President himself. Sarah—and anybody who has that job—works in the worst of all possible worlds. To do your job well, you have to be able to argue your case to reporters, but the very act of doing so is seen as disloyal, unless you’re beating up the reporter.” Brian Karem, a White House correspondent for Playboy, who often challenged Sanders, once described the Trump Administration as “childish,” adding, “and the President is the largest child. He wants fealty. He wants worship.”
In the post-Watergate era, the press secretary has served as a proxy for the public’s relationship with the White House. A secretary’s chief mandate was—and is—credibility. Gerald Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, a former NBC News reporter, who was seriously wounded by a grenade while covering Vietnam, once wrote, “I think most press secretaries, no matter what their background is, come to understand that the same set of rules always apply year after year, administration after administration: Tell the truth, don’t lie, don’t cover up, put out the bad news yourself, put it out as soon as possible, put your own explanation on it.”
Under Trump, most press briefings have been exercises in blocking, and therefore have been useless to the reporters tasked with relaying government activities to the public. Baker told me, “A press briefing is not the best way to get information under any President, but it is the one place where you get a chance to hold power accountable.” He once told Sanders, “Being cross-examined by the press is as American as it gets. It does not happen in Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang.”
Acrimony between Presidents and the press is not new. Richard Nixon stood at the podium and told journalists, “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger. You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.” Ronald Reagan, as I reported last year, once muttered “sons of bitches” as he watched reporters leave a room. When Bill Clinton was introducing Mike McCurry as his new flack, he, as Sanders has done, admonished reporters to “be respectful.” When the Clintons lived in the White House, Hillary wanted to wall off the press room, supposedly as part of a remodelling project, thereby blocking reporters’ walk-in access to the West Wing. George W. Bush accused journalists of “peacocking.” Barack Obama was considered remarkably inaccessible to reporters. Last year, I attended press briefings throughout the spring and summer; at one, I heard a reporter tell a new colleague, “Welcome to the snake pit.”
Sanders found it hard to hide her rage at reporters who appeared to grandstand in the hope of creating a viral moment that might benefit their standing on social media. These tended to be television correspondents, most notably CNN’s Jim Acosta. During one memorable briefing, Acosta stood and challenged Sanders to “say, right here,” that “the people who are gathered in this room right now” were “not the enemy of the people.” The moment was pure theatre. One reporter told me that some in the press corps did not want Acosta speaking for them. (“Right message, wrong messenger,” the correspondent said.) Sanders refused. Acosta walked out. A short time later, he declared on live TV that journalists “should make some bumper stickers, make some buttons” and “go out on Pennsylvania Avenue and chant ‘We’re not the enemy of the people.’ ” (One correspondent later told me, rightly, “That’s activism, not journalism.”) Sanders might have let such standoffs go, but, like Trump, she couldn’t resist having the final word, and inflamed situations with tweets from her official government account. When she declared “Trump Derangement Syndrome” a “major epidemic among Democrats,” tens of thousands of people liked the tweet, but others responded with comments such as “Keep it up, Goebbels, you’re doing great!” and “History will not look kindly upon you.”
On June 13th, the day that Trump tweeted the news of Sanders’s departure, White House correspondents attended a party for Acosta, whose memoir, “The Enemy of the People,” had just been published. Privately, they lamented the loss of Sanders. “Everybody’s worried about who Trump will pick next,” one reporter told me that night, by phone. “Whatever Sarah’s flaws were, we could work with her. We’re afraid he’ll pick one of these Fox News personalities who doesn’t actually try to get answers for reporters behind the scenes. What if he puts some crazy hack in there?”
In Arkansas, speculation about Sanders is already “shaking up” a Republican race that is expected to be crowded and expensive. The idea of a Sanders bid is enticing to Democrats, some of whom told the Associated Press that she “would draw national attention and money to a race that otherwise would be written off.”
A governorship would put Sanders within reach, once again, of national politics. (Arkansas has already launched one President.) In 2022, she will be only forty. As a government official in her own right, would she be another Trump? Another Mike Huckabee? If so, which Mike Huckabee? The Huckabee who used to urge bipartisan unity appears to no longer exist. He now hosts a variety show on a Christian TV network, performs punditry on Fox News, and spews hatefulness and nonsense on Twitter. Last month, he tweeted about the “DEEP STATE,” and told a critic who called him irrelevant, “Thanks. You’re making me rich.”
How does an aspiring governor come back from a legacy of having lied, repeatedly, to the public that she purports to serve? In the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan noted that Sanders “misled reporters or tried to, and through them, misled the American people.” Megan Garber, in The Atlantic, wrote that Sanders leaves behind a “political Darwinism—an environment in which everything is a competition, with the winner determined by who can shout the loudest, who can distract the most effectively, who can get in the best insult before the time for questioning is over.” The press secretary, she said, treated her public duty as a “battle to be won.”
Sanders is her own person. Perhaps she won’t be Trump or Huckabee; perhaps she’ll just be Sanders. We’ll see what that means. For now, she is saying only that it is time to “go home,” which, at one time, was the governor’s mansion.