Donald Trump was joking when he barked these words at his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, during a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in April – on a night when both were snubbing the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Sanders had made a short speech as delighted crowd chanted her name. “She’s becoming too popular,” the president quipped. “Sarah, I’m jealous.”
The truth was that Sanders had, in effect, been fired some time ago – long before her departure was announced on Thursday. The position of White House press secretary had all been made redundant. Trump prefers to do the job himself and be his own spokesman.
During Sanders’ tenure, the once daily ritual of the press briefing – must-watch television in the chaotic era of Sean Spicer – was essentially supplanted by the president holding court with reporters in the Oval Office, the cabinet room and, above all, on the White House South Lawn, competing with the roar of his Marine One helicopter.
The more he talked, the more pointless Sanders’ briefings became, since she merely parroted his tweets, evaded serious policy questions and channeled her boss’s anti-media barbs. It was perhaps inevitable that the briefings would get shorter and finally wither away, symbolised by a recent photo that showed dust literally gathering on the lectern.
Trump tweeted in January: “The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press. I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway!”
Such is the paradox: the administration is one of the most opaque in history, yet the president is one of the most transparent, offering his stream of consciousness for public consumption via his frequent remarks and barrage of tweets.
Along with Kellyanne Conway and other officials, Sanders – the third woman and first mother to serve as White House press secretary – continued to push the president’s dishonest lines in other ways: interviews on Fox News and other outlets, less formal gatherings in the White House driveway and, of course, Twitter.
Her web of deceit was dizzying and shameless. The special counsel Robert Mueller‘s Russia report found that Sanders admitted to investigators that she had made an unfounded claim about “countless” FBI agents expressing support for Trump’s decision to fire the FBI director James Comey.
Sanders’ predecessor, Sean Spicer, was a merchant of mendacity too, but she was better at it. The occasional glimpse of panic in his eyes suggested a flicker of self-awareness; Sanders, however, was a true believer, her lack of doubt proving her superpower. The class clown had been replaced by something more sinister.
Her devout allegiance to Trump is at least partly explained by her religious faith; she read from a book of Christian devotionals before every press briefing. She is among the millions of evangelicals willing to overlook his sins and believe he furthers their cause.
In conservative America, Sanders will remain a “personality”, no doubt popping up on Fox News and at Trump rallies, following in the footsteps of her father, the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, as a Trump cheerleader. (Sanders was born in Hope, the small town that also produced the former president Bill Clinton.)
In liberal America, she will be remembered as an apologist for a dangerous demagogue who occupies the Oval Office. The “resistance” made its feelings known. Sanders was roasted by the comedian Michelle Wolf at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner and, a year ago, ejected from a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia.
Kurt Bardella, a former Congressional aide who switched from Republican to Democrat, tweeted on Thursday: “No one should ever offer her a job ... she shouldn’t be given a book deal. She shouldn’t be given a pundit deal. She should never be allowed to be given any kind of platform ever again to lie to the American people.”
Sanders’ willingness to echo Trump’s fierce attacks on the media was unprecedented for a press secretary and will be a shameful legacy. When the CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta repeatedly challenged her at briefings to say the press are not the enemy of the people, she declined to do so.
On camera at such moments, she could be pugnacious, combative and sardonic; off camera, she could be warm, folksy and down to earth. In his new book, Acosta tells how she met reporters for drinks and could “throw back her Maker’s and Coke with the best of them”.
Sanders lasted a relatively long time by Trumpian standards. It is uncertain who will replace her or, indeed, whether there will be a press secretary in the proper sense at all, now that the president appears to have taken on those duties. The job of communications director also remains vacant since Bill Shine’s departure in March. Even the chief of staff Mick Mulvaney remains “acting”.
Sanders’ final press briefing was 94 days ago, on 11 March. It lasted just 14 minutes. On Thursday Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, offered this epitaph via Twitter: “Sarah Sanders’ primary legacy as White House press secretary will be the death of the daily press briefing.”