Sanders' challenge: Maintaining credibility, while staying loyal to Trump

Accuracy appears to be a secondary c...

Posted: Jun 7, 2018 7:22 PM
Updated: Jun 7, 2018 7:22 PM

Accuracy appears to be a secondary concern when you're the press secretary in the Trump White House, where the primary role is performing for an audience of one. But as Sarah Sanders approaches one year behind the White House podium, the questions about her credibility are growing louder.

"I'm very comfortable with my credibility," she told CNN's Chris Cuomo Wednesday night, before launching into an argument minutes later defending President Donald Trump's unproven claim that there was a broad conspiracy by federal law enforcement to spy on his campaign.

The episode perfectly encapsulated the challenge Sanders faces on a daily basis -- being the public face for a president who frequently contradicts himself and those who speak for him, leading many to question how much longer she can last in a role that tests her credibility on a regular basis.

Sanders' role in the West Wing was described to CNN by a half-dozen people familiar with it.

Sanders has told allies and confidantes that she doesn't expect to remain in her role as press secretary forever because the demanding schedule doesn't pair well with raising three young children. A central question to how much longer she lasts in the position revolves around how long she believes she can maintain her credibility and be effective for the President, two people familiar with her thinking said, but she has told friends she wants to serve at least a year in the position -- possibly longer, at the pleasure of the President.

Another person close to Sanders said the midterm elections would be a natural time for Sanders to leave the intense role -- an end date that half a dozen other senior officials have considered as well.

"She's not as frustrated as people on the outside may think," said one Republican friend who frequently talks with her, speaking on condition of anonymity to not alienate her. "She believes the President is often treated unfairly and she's fighting the good fight."

On the job learning

Sanders learned how to challenge Trump by watching Hope Hicks. In Oval Office meetings, Sanders quietly observed how Hicks picked her battles with their mercurial boss -- and took notes -- two sources familiar told CNN. If Trump had a wild idea that she thought might cause a serious backlash, Hicks would sometimes suggest another course of action. If he was in the middle of dictating a blistering tweet that she knew would generate negative headlines for days, Hicks would recommend wording it this way or that way instead. Sometimes he listened, and sometimes he didn't. But as time went on, Sanders learned how to join forces with Hicks to cajole the President into taking what they believed was the best path. With Hicks' March departure, Sanders has been on her own in dealing with the volatile president.

Hicks served as a sounding board for the President and was one of the few people in his inner circle that understood his personality. One of her primary roles in the West Wing was controlling his media access and she always sat in during his interviews with reporters. When she left, that responsibility fell to Sanders, who is now seen by her colleagues as the conduit for press access, fielding most inquiries that come his way as her profile has risen in the West Wing since Hicks left.

Although Sanders has taken over some of Hicks' main responsibilities, sources familiar with their relationship told CNN Trump does not have the same personal relationship with her that he had with Hicks, who he sees as a family member. He does not, for example, shout out for Sanders from the Oval Office in the way that he did for Hicks, which usually amounted to a "Hope! Hopester! Get in here!" Though he and Sanders speak regularly, their conversations are all business.

Path to the podium

Sanders assumed the podium July 21, 2017, after serving as deputy press secretary for the first six months of the administration and has become a trusted confidante of the President's. He is more satisfied with the briefings since she was pushed in front of the press corps when her predecessor, Sean Spicer, stepped down last July after Anthony Scaramucci was briefly hired as the communications director.

Trump had grown exasperated by Spicer's combative press briefings, which he watches closely from his private dining room off the Oval Office. He thought Spicer bungled answers to difficult questions, and privately encouraged him to hold the briefings off camera or let one of the deputies do it. Trump told other aides he thought Spicer seemed mad at the world when he was addressing reporters, now noting how Sanders can push back on the press corps without losing her cool.

"She's got a great face," Trump, who is obsessed with aesthetics, once remarked of Sanders. "Perfectly round."

Trump, meanwhile, had often remarked on Spicer's ill-fitting suits.

In a West Wing rife with infighting, Sanders is one of few who is generally well-liked and respected by her colleagues that constantly leak damaging information on one another to reporters. When she first stepped into the press secretary role, a senior official remarked how they appreciated that Sanders would approach staffers on their areas of expertise when she expected questions on that subject during the briefing.

Before facing reporters, Sanders goes through extensive preparation that can stretch two hours long and include multiple officials. Though Spicer surrounded himself more than two dozen staffers in the time leading up to the daily briefing, Sanders prefers a focused, tight-knit group. She typically meets with White House chief of staff John Kelly or Trump in the Oval Office beforehand, going over her scripted answers and soliciting their input.

Credibility at stake

But all the prep in the world doesn't change the fact that in front of the cameras, Sanders is often put in the difficult position of putting her credibility on the line time and time again for a President who speaks for himself.

In March, she said Trump and his national security adviser H.R. McMaster had a "good working relationship." He was fired a week later.

That same month she told reporters that -- as far as she's aware -- Trump didn't know his lawyer Michael Cohen paid a porn actress for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter. Rudy Giuliani later said he did.

And in recent days, Sanders has been pressed with questions about a misleading statement drafted aboard Air Force One last summer regarding Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting in Trump Tower with Russian officials. Though Sanders said last fall that Trump did not dictate the statement, but offered input "as any father would," his legal team has since told federal investigators he did dictate it. Sanders was on that flight, but she has refused to explain the inconsistency.

Sanders seeks to avoid being undermined by offering answers that can't be contradicted -- cycling through vague phrases like, "Not that I'm aware of." "I can't say with 100% certainty" and "The President has made his position very clear."

Though critics argue that Sanders is willingly speaking on behalf of the administration, tensions over a lack of information have, at times, reached a boiling point. After the staff secretary Rob Porter was accused by two ex-wives of physical abuse, Sanders read glowing statements defending Porter. But as the story unfolded it became obvious Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn knew more than they had initially claimed. Both McGahn and Kelly were generally aware of the allegations against Porter before he stepped down, multiple sources told CNN, making them central players in the saga.

Sanders, frustrated with having initially defended Porter, engaged in a West Wing yelling match with McGahn, who she believed wasn't giving her enough information about the ordeal. She refused to face reporters again if she didn't get answers.

"We're giving you the best information that we're going to have," Sanders said during a briefing in the following days. "Obviously the press team's not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements, at a given moment, on a variety of topics. But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have, and we get those from those individuals."

Though tensions later cooled, Sanders has had a troubled relationship with the counsel's office ever since, sources familiar with the relationship said.

Though she returned the White House to a more regular on-camera briefing schedule than the end of Spicer's tenure, Sanders has held fewer briefings in recent weeks compared to her first few months.

It appears to be a reflection of how the President is intent on driving the White House coverage himself, through tweets and brief question-and-answer sessions with reporters.

While several officials say Trump is generally pleased with Sanders' performance, particularly how she tangles with reporters in the briefing room, the President believes he is the best voice of his administration. He remains unmatched in his ability to dictate coverage with his remarks -- on Twitter and in public -- in a way that neither she nor any of his aides can.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 954230

Reported Deaths: 15474
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1298902003
Lake638781106
Allen54326765
Hamilton44326448
St. Joseph42368592
Elkhart33998491
Vanderburgh30740451
Tippecanoe27012251
Johnson23862420
Hendricks22576343
Porter21943348
Clark17657231
Madison17628387
Vigo16465285
Monroe14637193
LaPorte14493241
Delaware14291225
Howard14058274
Kosciusko11562137
Hancock11022168
Warrick10793179
Bartholomew10730171
Floyd10584209
Wayne10169230
Grant9271206
Morgan9000160
Boone8507112
Dubois7823124
Dearborn776391
Henry7749134
Noble7510101
Marshall7452129
Cass7244118
Lawrence7080154
Shelby6701111
Jackson666386
Gibson6233107
Harrison613287
Huntington608397
Montgomery5903106
DeKalb587591
Knox5589105
Miami554889
Putnam547668
Clinton540566
Whitley534054
Steuben506570
Wabash492792
Jasper487763
Jefferson478992
Ripley463477
Adams448868
Daviess4267109
Scott413065
Clay398358
Greene396892
White396158
Wells393285
Decatur391297
Fayette383380
Posey364341
Jennings358857
Washington336847
LaGrange327375
Spencer323037
Randolph320290
Fountain320156
Sullivan311349
Owen289764
Starke287565
Fulton282356
Orange279259
Jay260038
Perry256353
Carroll247129
Franklin244938
Rush238930
Vermillion237751
Parke222421
Tipton214255
Pike214041
Blackford172934
Pulaski170351
Crawford148519
Newton147046
Benton144716
Brown136646
Martin130618
Switzerland127810
Warren116116
Union99511
Ohio80911
Unassigned0494

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1393696

Reported Deaths: 21820
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1544531574
Cuyahoga1364632341
Hamilton991581326
Montgomery682681161
Summit571661051
Lucas51927869
Butler48223663
Stark42502983
Lorain32263539
Warren30544338
Mahoning27651643
Clermont26123297
Lake24920422
Delaware22656147
Licking20886246
Fairfield20833223
Greene20708275
Trumbull20465516
Medina20236290
Clark18277332
Richland16793236
Portage16501231
Wood16002209
Allen14459261
Miami14091261
Muskingum13019155
Wayne12306244
Columbiana12094242
Tuscarawas11297271
Marion10960150
Pickaway10675129
Scioto10618127
Erie9905171
Ross9685177
Lawrence9005125
Hancock8667143
Ashtabula8533187
Belmont8301188
Geauga8294156
Jefferson7785175
Huron7598131
Union745351
Washington7451126
Athens712965
Sandusky7003135
Darke6906137
Knox6876122
Seneca6551137
Ashland6095115
Auglaize598788
Shelby5867104
Brown579072
Mercer566790
Crawford5603117
Defiance5587101
Madison552571
Highland551782
Fulton544583
Clinton537681
Logan521987
Preble5131111
Putnam4915107
Guernsey489464
Williams471582
Perry466254
Champaign456664
Ottawa444684
Jackson438763
Pike402645
Morrow400551
Coshocton398069
Fayette385253
Adams373675
Hardin369470
Gallia357858
Henry332969
Holmes3328111
Van Wert323271
Hocking312570
Wyandot286858
Carroll268252
Paulding248843
Meigs225542
Monroe193449
Noble174942
Morgan171229
Harrison161941
Vinton143119
Unassigned05
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