I want to apologize to Times readers — and to Sarah Huckabee Sanders — for a description that was insensitive and failed to meet the standards of our newspaper. It also failed to meet the expectations I have for myself. It surely won't be my last mistake, but this particular error will be scrupulously avoided in my future commentaries. I've removed the offending description.
— David Horsey
Donald Trump is lucky to have Sarah Huckabee Sanders as his chief spokesperson.
I wouldn't have said that when she first got the job. In fact, I sharply disagreed with a friend of mine who expressed admiration for the way Sanders performs her duties. She is confident and unflappable, my friend said. I had trouble seeing that those strengths outweighed the fact that pretty much every statement coming out of the press secretary's mouth was a distortion of the truth.
But now I get it. Anyone who is going to be tasked with the job of explaining this president to the news media needs to be comfortable with saying things that are demonstrably not true. That was the problem with Sanders' predecessor, Sean Spicer. Lying seemed to fluster him. When he was challenged on any blatantly erroneous statement, he would get red-faced and petulant. It was as if he was trying to signal a message to reporters: "Come on, guys, lay off! Don't make me humiliate myself on live TV!"
That may be why, toward the end of Spicer's short time in the job, cameras were banned from briefings and he even conducted one exchange with reporters while huddled in the bushes outside the White House.
Sanders betrays no qualms about her role. She delivers the daily load of fibs and evasions in a flat, emotionless voice and, if questioned, keeps her cool, repeats her fallacious statements and sneers as if she hopes there is a firing squad waiting outside for the upstart journalist.
On Monday — the day it was announced that Trump's former campaign boss, Paul Manafort, had been indicted by a grand jury looking into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and that another Trump campaign operative, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russians — Sanders used up several long minutes of the daily news briefing by reciting an odd, folksy parable that had something to do with the tax system. When she finally got around to questions about Manafort and Papadopoulos, she treated the news as if it centered on obscure events in a galaxy far, far away.
"Today's announcement has nothing to do with the president," Sanders said.
Meanwhile, according to reports in the Washington Post, the president was somewhere else in the executive mansion freaking out and screaming at the TV because he knew this advance in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation did, in fact, have a great deal to do with him.
Taking the offensive, Sanders confidently delivered the new Republican talking point that, if anyone were guilty of colluding with Moscow, it was Hillary Clinton — which is the boldest evasion anyone in the Trump camp has come up with, so far.
The Russia probe began with solid information from U.S. intelligence services about a pervasive Russian disinformation campaign aimed at boosting Trump's chances to win the presidency and discredit his opponent, Clinton. That intelligence has now been reinforced by revelations from Facebook and Twitter detailing thousands of bogus messages and ads placed on social media by Russian operatives. Suspicions that the Trump campaign may have colluded with the Russians in this effort prompted the appointment of the special prosecutor and led to discovery of multiple meetings between Trump campaign officials and Russians in which the Trump folks — including Donald Trump Jr. and Papadopoulos — showed eagerness to get dirt on Clinton.
Now, the waters have been muddied by news that the Clinton campaign had picked up where one of Trump's Republican primary opponents had left off by paying for a dossier listing Trump's numerous ties to the Russians. Trump's shrillest shill, Sean Hannity, has declared that this bit of opposition research is the scandal of the century. Trump himself tweeted on Sunday that "There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!" Then, he followed that up on Tuesday, asking "why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????"
This is deranged political jujitsu (Clinton is the culprit in a Russian effort to sabotage her campaign?), but it is worth noting how seamlessly Sanders worked the new canard into her presentation.
Over the years we have seen many White House press secretaries who did a good job representing the interests of their administrations. They managed to put a positive spin on things without straying too far from facts. By that standard, Sanders is a failure. But in the world of Trump, spin is in, ignorance is strength and facts are nothing more than what you want them to be. By that new standard, Sanders is a pro.
Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter