The White House press secretary’s calm under intense pressure – and serial fibbing – has given the president’s administration a very effective, female public face
Hadley Freeman– The Guardian
One of the earliest photos from the Trump presidency set the look – or so we thought back then – of the weird new world in which we all found ourselves. It showed the then freshly inaugurated Potus signing the global gag rule, which states that the US will remove funding for any overseas organisation that offers abortions. A ring of men watched Donald Trump sign this order: Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and so on. This, we assumed in the comparatively innocent era of early 2017, was what the Trump presidency itself would look like: patriarchal, male, anti-female. And yet one of the strangest and most striking elements of Trump’s administration is that, second only to the limelight-loving president himself, the most public faces of this administration have been women.
First it was his daughter Ivanka Trump, the woman who claims to care so much about families that she works for a president who will be remembered for his cruel family separation policy. Then it was Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the president, who coined the handy euphemism “alternative facts” – better known as lies. And now it’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary since July 2017, who has assumed centre stage as Trump’s most effective patriarchal footsoldier.
Sanders eagerly placed herself at the centre of a media storm last week when she defended the White House’s decision to revoke CNN’s Jim Acosta’s press pass by claiming that in a press briefing Acosta placed “his hands on a young woman”. Of course, as everyone who watched the briefing on TV could see, what actually happened was that the female intern, encouraged by Trump, tried to grab the microphone away from Acosta when he started to ask a second question. To back up her blatant lie, Sanders retweeted a clearly doctored video, originally tweeted by conspiracist blog InfoWars, in which two seconds of tape were sped up to make it look like Acosta somehow karate chopped the female intern. “This conduct is absolutely unacceptable,” tweeted Sanders, apparently unaware that she works for a man who bragged about grabbing women by the vulva during his campaign.
Except, of course, Sanders isn’t unaware of that at all. She was already working on the campaign when the tape of Trump’s 2005 conversation with Billy Bush was leaked, and it was Sanders, an evangelical Christian, who went on CNN to defend her boss afterwards. “Both of these candidates are flawed. There is no perfect person,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper. When Tapper asked her if Trump would apologise to the women he assaulted, Sanders retorted, “Has Hillary Clinton apologised to the four American lives that were lost in Benghazi?”
Sanders is, in many ways, the most fascinating person in the Trump administration. Whereas vice-president Mike Pence, another evangelical, generally gives the impression of keeping Trump and his foibles at arm’s length, Sanders is a full-throated and, by all reports, genuinely devoted Trump defender. Like Trump’s favourite woman in the world, Ivanka, she is a loyal daughter, having grown up watching her father, the ludicrous Mike Huckabee, repeatedly run for president. Trump values few things more than filial loyalty, and he rushes to Sanders’ defence when she is criticised by journalists, as if he was protecting her against the playground bullies. And like Trump’s evangelical base, Sanders, who considers her faith to be the defining part of her life, somehow makes the mental leap of overlooking his multiple divorces, infidelities and general sleaziness because he styles himself as anti-abortion. (“It’s not hard to see why evangelicals support him,” Sanders’ husband, Bryan, told Politico last week.) She is an interesting answer to that eternal mystery that is Trump’s appeal to the Christian right, and his appeal among large swathes of white women.
She is the third woman to be the White House press secretary, and the first mother, and she gives the impression of being always calm in a job that caused multiple men before her – Anthony Scaramucci, Sean Spicer – to self-destruct. In another life, she would be almost impressive – a feminist hero, even: this strong woman, a mother of three, triumphing in one of the most scrutinised and stressful jobs around. And this, of course, is kind of the point of Sanders.
I tend to resist crediting Trump with too much tactical nous, as I seriously wonder if he knows his left foot from his right these days, but one thing he certainly understands is how to exploit identity politics. He did it during his campaign for the presidency, when he repeatedly accused Clinton of using identity politics, while explicitly playing to white, racist, angry voters. Now he puts women out in front so he can claim that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he’s not a sexually harassing misogynist. He likes women so much he occasionally hires them! Hell, he even fathered one (Tiffany, of course, never counts.) And Sanders has learned at the knee of her master, playing the feminist card when it suits her, such as her shameless appropriation of the #MeToo movement as justification for taking away the press credentials of Acosta. (No mention of the fact that at the same press briefing Trump barked at Yamiche Alcindor, an African-American journalist that she asked “such a racist question” when she asked whether his rhetoric emboldened racists.) Yet when the first wife of then White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, who was accused of spousal abuse, called Sanders out for not speaking up more for women, she bristled at the reference to her sex: “The administration,” she replied, “is trying to find ways to prevent abuse against all women.”
During the White House correspondents’ dinner last April, comedian Michelle Wolf famously went after Sanders – but no more so (and this is a rarely noted fact) than she went after everyone else, from CNN to Trump himself. Yet Wolf’s comments about Sanders caused a media firestorm, and it’s worth going back to look at those actual comments to see how the Trump administration gaslights even smart women about feminism. Wolf began by comparing Sanders to The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunt Lydia, who educates women into becoming handmaids, and the reaction to Wolf’s monologue proved how right that comparison was.
“I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies,” Wolf said.
Sanders looked palpably pained during the skit and Trump affected abject outrage (reminder: this is the man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy). More excruciating was the tutting from the media at an event that is ostensibly a celebration of the freedom of speech. “That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television,” the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted. “Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable,” agreed MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski.
The words “give”, “me”, “a”, “large” and “break” are possibly throbbing in your brain right now. Because clearly Wolf hadn’t mocked Sanders’ looks: she had called her out for lying, something Sanders does all the time. She lied last year when she said “the president in no way, form or fashion has ever encouraged violence” (Politifact immediately described that as false); she lied when, after pipe bombs were sent last month to CNN and others, she insisted that “the president is not placing blame [on the media for the bombs]” (that was the very first thing he did); and she lied in her statement about Acosta when she claimed that Trump “believes in a free press and welcomes tough questions”, as Alcindor could confirm.
At press briefings, Sanders delivers these lies in her now familiar air-sucking monotone, dismissing facts as casually as if she were swatting flies, and this air of breezy official-speak makes her much harder to argue against than, say, Spicer, who would get flustered by his own falsehoods. In this way, Sanders and Trump have frequently gaslit the news media, insisting that what they have seen with their own eyes isn’t true and using the language of the left against them. The starchy American media has been at a loss as to how to deal with Trump and Sanders, blatantly lying to journalists’ faces and not caring if they get caught and insisting they take care of Sanders’ womanly feelings while they themselves take away women’s rights and Trump trashes other women’s appearances. Too many media organisations have allowed themselves to be played.
But there are some signs this strategy is losing its effectiveness. US broadsheets, which for too long have cautiously said Trump and Sanders “misspoke” when they lied, are starting to say it more like it is: “Sarah Sanders has a knack for lying” read a recent typical Washington Post headline over a piece by conservative commentator, Jennifer Rubin. Trump and Sanders have played a pretty good game for over a year now, but Sanders overplayed her hand when she retweeted that doctored video. She has always insisted she didn’t want to be treated differently because she’s a woman, and we should believe her about that (even if she did affect deep wounds at a joke about eyeshadow). But we should judge her for being what is, in this job, a far more relevant part of her identity: a liar.