Politics

The Boring Lies of Sarah Huckabee Sanders

She told some outrageous whoppers, but she endured as long as she did because of flat denials, delivered in monotone.
June 14, 2019
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(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Trump White House has set records for staff turnover in the past two years, but it still came as a surprise when the president announced via Twitter Thursday that press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will leave the administration at the end of the month. Sanders has become a central fixture of the administration and an invaluable member of Trump’s team, generally triumphing in the critical task at which her predecessors Sean Spicer and (God love him) Anthony Scaramucci frequently failed: managing not to make the White House’s constant mini-crises any worse during the gauntlet of the White House briefing. Granted, this was mostly achieved by not having briefings. But when she did, Sanders proved herself to be the perfect public-facing foil for the riotous Trump administration: Her morose, plodding style and Bartlebyesque refusals to grant reporters a single inch of ground poured cold water on news cycle after news cycle that might otherwise have ignited.

The downside, of course, was that she lied a lot. But even here she distinguished herself from Spicer, whose sweaty, frantic tall tales—that was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period!—always invited heaps of instant ridicule. Deadpanning her way through boring, misleading briefing after boring, misleading briefing, Sarah Sanders managed to take most of the fun out of calling her out—as much of a victory as Trump could typically hope for, under the circumstances.

Still, the Sarah Sanders era had its highlights. Here are a couple of our favorites.

“I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI”

The big Kahuna of Sarah Sanders lies—the one that made it onto her Wikipedia page—is one it’s hard even to blame her for. How was she supposed to know the FBI would question her about it, and then share her answer with the class?

The moment came at a briefing in May 2017, shortly after President Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey. The president initially claimed he was firing the director for mishandling the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server in 2016, then later let on what everyone pretty much already knew: It was to get the Russia investigation off his back. In the meantime, however, Sanders was trotted out to make an improbable claim: Comey had to go because he’d lost the confidence of the rank-and-file members of the FBI.

When acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe publicly disagreed, Sanders doubled down at a subsequent press conference:

I can speak to my own personal experience. I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision. … I’ve certainly heard from a large number of individuals, and that’s just myself. And I don’t even know that many people in the FBI.

Even at the time, this statement seemed dubious: Sanders had personally heard from countless FBI members? How high can she count? But it was still remarkable to read, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his report on Russian election meddling in April, that Sanders had explicitly copped to her bullshitting:

Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from “countless members of the FBI” was a “slip of the tongue.” She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made “in the heat of the moment” that was not founded on anything.

Encouraging violence? Donald Trump?

After that early boondoggle, Sanders seemed quickly to develop a strategy: When there’s lying to be done, flat, boring denials work better than spinning ludicrous yarns. One prime example of this came in February, when reports of a foiled domestic terror plot against prominent journalists and Democrats led a reporter to ask Sanders whether the president had any plans to “tone down his rhetoric”—a justifiable question about a man who frequently terms the news media “the enemy of the people,” openly encouraged violence at his campaign rallies, and, once president, celebrated Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte’s assault on the Guardian‘s Ben Jacobs.

Sanders didn’t flinch. “I certainly don’t think that the president at any point has done anything but condemn violence, against journalists or anyone else,” Sanders responded. It was in line with comments she’d made repeatedly in the past: “The president in no way, form, or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence,” she said in June 2017.

Slouching through the News

You can take your pick of the rest: Sanders denying any members of the Trump campaign had ever met with Russians in February 2017, Sanders insisting there had been nothing untoward about Donald Trump making hush money payments from the White House to Michael Cohen to cover up his affairs during election season, Sanders waving off criticism of the administration’s barbaric family separation policy by remarking that “it is very biblical to enforce the law.”

But all this is somewhat beside the point. It wasn’t any single heroic act of staggering duplicity that earned Sarah Sanders her paycheck at the White House. It was the mealy spaces between the highlights: the constant barrage of bald denials of plain fact, all delivered in a bored monotone that made them seem not outrageous, or even particularly notable, but simply tiresome. How will they manage to replace that?

 

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.