A consensus is developing this week in Washington and beyond that Michelle Wolf was right: Sarah Huckabee Sanders—metaphorically anyhow—really does burn facts and use the ashes to create a perfect smoky eye.
And while Wolf’s joke five weeks ago at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner was greeted by gasps and general pearl-clutching—to say nothing of the sour grimace displayed by her target—the White House press secretary’s rapidly eroding credibility is likely to have a severe impact on American democracy and the United States’ once-prestigious standing in the world.
“It’s corrosive and dangerous, and it fits the pattern,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy said, reflecting the near-unanimous view of several former White House press secretaries reached on Wednesday by The Daily Beast.
“She’s not the outlier in this administration; it’s the president’s nature too,” Murphy said. “One of the tragedies of the Trump era is that the president does not understand the presidency. In the American system, the president is not only the head of government, like a prime minister, he’s the head of state, like the Queen of England. So when the president speaks, it’s the American government speaking.”
Thus the constant White House dissembling “is very corrosive, because our friends and enemies are confused, the ability to govern is compromised, and in a crisis, when the truth is important and what the government says has to be believed, this kind of activity has a slow but damaging effect on that credibility,” Murphy added. “That weakens not just the political government in power but it weakens the authority of the state, which is something that should be priceless and protected.”
It was the day after Sanders, during Tuesday’s typically tense back-and-forth with reporters in the White House briefing room, repeatedly refused to explain how and why she came to lie about the authorship of Donald Trump Jr.’s erroneous statement concerning his mid-campaign Trump Tower meeting with Kremlin-connected Russians—in which the president’s son prevaricated that the meeting was called to discuss the adoption of Russian babies, instead of its actual purpose: to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Contrary to Sanders’ claim last summer, the statement was dictated word for word by the president from Air Force One, as Donald Sr.’s lawyers confirmed in a just-released letter to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
It wasn’t the first time, of course, that Sanders’ assertions were at odds with the facts. Breakfast Media White House correspondent Andrew Feinberg summarized Sanders’ credibility problem when he asked her on Tuesday: “Why should we be able to trust that the information we’re getting from this administration is accurate and, more importantly, why should Americans be able to trust that what they hear from this White House is always the truth?”
In a textbook example of gaslighting, Sanders retorted: “Frankly, I think my credibility is probably higher than the media’s. And I think that in large part that’s because you guys spend more of your time focused on attacking the president instead of reporting the news. I think that if you spent a little bit more time reporting the news instead of trying to tear me down, you might actually see that we’re working hard trying to provide you good information.”
Former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, who did the job during Bill Clinton’s second term, told The Daily Beast about Sanders’ official conduct: “The understatement of the year is that it’s a real problem.”
“That briefing is watched closely by the American people, by our allies, by our enemies, by people who want to do good for this country and by people who want to do bad to this country,” Lockhart said. “It has a purpose, and its purpose is not to only serve the political agenda of the president. It’s to keep the American public and a large part of the world informed about what the U.S. government is doing.
“Every press secretary, at some point in time, gives out bad information,” Lockhart continued. “Maybe they misheard something, somebody with an agenda lied to them, or they just messed up. “
Sanders, he said, “could have very easily got up there and said, ‘Listen, I’m upset. I was given bad information. I’m not gonna tell you who gave it to me…But bad information was given out, and that’s wrong, and I’m going to work my hardest to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
“But she didn’t. Instead, she got up there and said, ‘It’s none of your business,’ and when the press persisted, she said, ‘You’re worse liars than me.’”
Had she given a more thought-out explanation, it would have likely incurred the wrath of President Trump—who never admits error or apologizes, and tends to become angry on the rare occasions when his underlings do so.
“You know what? She does work for Donald Trump, but she also works for us,” Lockhart responded. “She works for everybody who pays taxes, and even for people who don’t pay taxes—like, I guess, her boss. If you can’t do the minimal requirements of the job, you become complicit in the lie and in the degradation of the podium, the White House, the office of the president and ultimately the democracy.”
Former Democratic strategist Mike McCurry, who preceded Lockhart as Clinton’s White House press secretary (and managed to retain his credibility with the press corps even as his boss was lying promiscuously about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky), declined to disparage Sanders directly. “I have a rule of not commenting on my successors; the job is hard enough,” he explained.
But McCurry, who has left politics to teach at Washington’s Wesley Theological Seminary, a Methodist institution, described an inexorable “dumbing-down” of the White House briefing that he dates to the mid-1990s when he permitted live television in the press room, which he says prompted preening and showboating from the various players in what ultimately became “theater of the absurd.”
“The general proposition is that either the president or someone on the president’s behalf ought to stand up and be accountable to the American people every day,” McCurry said. “That’s a fundamental aspect of our democracy. It is broken now. And I don’t think it’s broken beyond repair. It’s just broken beyond Trump. I hope we restore some kind of regular order when this whole episode is done.”
A third former White House press secretary, who asked not be further identified because of the sensitivity of his current private-sector perch, told The Daily Beast that being Trump’s top spokesperson “is an impossible job” because of his “loose relationship with the truth.”
“You can only be as effective as your ability to be credible, and if you can’t do that, you can’t do the job,” this person said, adding that several prospective Trump press secretary candidates had sought advice about the White House job but ultimately decided against applying.
In Sanders’ case, “the die is cast; it’s already too late” to redeem herself, the former press secretary said.
Lockhart, meanwhile, predicted: “I think Sanders has run into a now-terminal problem because she’s unwilling—in a moment when the lie is laid out to everyone—to even acknowledge that it’s a lie and to address the question of why was this bad information put out. It’s not whether she was unwittingly lying or wittingly lying, she’s now complicit in the lie. And I don’t think she’s got anywhere to turn now, except for the exit.”