Sanders steps into role as new face of White House
WASHINGTON (AP) — New White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was schooled in hardscrabble politics — and down-home rhetoric — from a young age by her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Her way with a zinger — and her unshakable loyalty to an often unpredictable boss — are big reasons why she became a rising star in President Donald Trump’s orbit. She’ll take over for Sean Spicer, who abruptly announced Friday that he’s resigning, effective at the end of August.
Sanders steps into what has been deemed the most difficult job in Washington. Her responsibilities are not just to do combat with a feisty White House press corps but to try to please a mercurial president who fancies himself his own best spokesman.
Trump often presents his own thoughts directly on Twitter in the early hours of the morning and is known to closely follow his surrogates on television, assessing their performances. He has been happy with Sanders’ advocacy, says Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president.
“She understands America. She understands the president. And she understands how to connect the two,” Conway told The Associated Press in March. “The president has a great deal of trust in Sarah.”
Sanders, in her debut briefing after the announcement of her promotion, promised to “be as open, honest and transparent with you all as humanly possible.” Her low-key approach, which came after a 37-minute charm offensive from new communications director Anthony Scaramucci, was in stark contrast to Spicer’s debut in the role. Spicer, in his first briefing, berated reporters about underestimating the size of Trump’s inaugural crowds and refused to take questions.
Sanders, who will be the third female press secretary in history, credits her larger-than-life dad with helping her learn how to deliver a message. Huckabee, a frequent political commentator, has long been famed for his pithy rhetoric. The two speak most days before 6 a.m.
“I’ll call and say, ‘What do you think if I say this?’ He’ll say, ‘That’s really good. You might try to say it a little bit more like X,’” she said.
But while she often opts to diffuse problems with some down-home Southern charm, she can also be combative. Last month, she got into a heated exchange with a reporter who accused the White House of trying to antagonize the press corps and snapped, “I think it is outrageous for you to accuse me of inflaming a story when I was simply trying to respond to his question.”
On advocating for the unconventional Trump, Sanders admits that even in the press office, they don’t always get a heads-up before Trump tweets. But she says part of Trump’s appeal is that he “directly communicates with the American people on a regular basis.”
And now she is thrust into the role that made Spicer a household name and the butt of “Saturday Night Live” skits. Sanders, too, has been portrayed on the long-running show, and now she is who most Americans will see when they get news from the White House — if the administration returns the briefing to an on-camera format.
Arkansas-raised, Sanders is married to a Republican consultant and moved her young family to Washington to be part of the administration. She joined the Trump campaign not long after her father’s second presidential bid — which she managed — fizzled out in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. She said she was drawn to Trump’s message of economic populism and his outsider attitude. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — a former first lady, senator and secretary of state — was seen by many as the ultimate insider.
“One of the big things my dad was running on was changing Washington, breaking that cycle,” Sanders said last spring. “I felt like the outsider component was important and I thought he had the ability to actually win and defeat Hillary.”
Sanders entered politics young, helping with her father’s campaigns as a child and then working her way up the ranks. In 2007, she moved to Iowa to run her father’s operation in the leadoff caucus state, where he was the surprise winner. She also served in the Education Department under President George W. Bush and worked on a number of Senate and presidential campaigns.
The Arkansas ties continue to hold strong. Sanders has consulted with friends from the state about her new role, including Mack McLarty, a former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, who she said counseled her to appreciate the “historic opportunity” to work in the White House.
And she downplayed on Friday any reports of “chaos” enveloping the West Wing, saying that her house at 6 a.m. with three young kids was far more hectic.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed reporting.