A televised reënactment of Trump’s Twitter feed

The New Yorker has a long piece on Sarah Sanders as Trump’s battering ram.

Trump needed a stronger link to evangelicals and women, and Sanders was happy to provide one. Despite the differences in their family backgrounds—Mike and Janet Huckabee grew up poor; Trump didn’t—the candidate felt familiar to her. Huckabee was an economic populist; Trump claimed to be one, too. Huckabee had campaigned on a promise to “restore America’s greatness”; Trump’s slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Huckabee wanted to ban abortion; Trump had vowed to appoint pro-life advocates to the bench. Like Huckabee, Trump enjoyed ad-libbing while giving speeches.

Sanders relished the idea of helping an outsider like Trump defeat the people she viewed as the ultimate Washington insiders: the Clintons. She appreciated Hillary Clinton for advancing the cause of female candidates, but loathed her politics. “She has shown her utter contempt for anyone that doesn’t support her and doesn’t think like her, and I think that’s a really scary thing to have in a President,” Sanders said, on a talk-radio show.

So she works for Trump, who is such a contrast to Clinton that way: he of course never shows his utter contempt for anyone who doesn’t support him and doesn’t think like him.

No but seriously. If Clinton were president now we can be absolutely sure she would not be issuing multiple tweets every day insulting people who don’t support her or agree with her. We can be sure she wouldn’t be issuing any tweets of that kind at all, because that’s not an intelligent responsible adult thing for a president to do. So Sanders loathes the “basket of deplorables” but is fine with “Pocahontas” and “Cryin’ Chuck” and “a very low-IQ individual” and “you can grab them by the pussy” and all the rest of it.

Maybe what she said is not what she really meant. Maybe the problem is just that Clinton is obviously both intelligent and informed.

Officially, the White House press secretary’s job is to represent the President and the executive branch before the press and the public, and to relay media inquiries to the White House. Acrimony among these various parties isn’t unusual: Ronald Reagan once muttered, “Sons of bitches,” after reporters questioned him. But the Trump Administration’s relationship with the press transcends ordinary discord. The President’s toxic relationship with the media demands that a press secretary behave, at least publicly, less as a source of information than as a battering ram—especially during a moment of crisis, like now.

“Like now” being in the wake of the publication of Woodward’s book and the anonymous op-ed.

Sanders has labelled “Fear” a work of “fiction,” and attempted to trivialize its celebrated author by noting that she hadn’t read his books. The day that the Op-Ed appeared, she convened her staff, then launched a counterattack questioning the mystery author’s honor, deploying such Trumpian keywords as “pathetic” and “coward.” On Twitter, she urged Americans to call the “failing NYT”— Trump’s favorite (and erroneous) characterization of the newspaper—and demand the unmasking of the “gutless loser” who’d written the piece. Her tweet included the paper’s main phone number.

Two former White House ethics chiefs declared that Sanders’s tweet had violated federal law. One of them, Richard Painter, who worked in the Bush Administration, told Newsweek that Sanders was “using her official position to interfere with the freedom of the press.” This wasn’t the first abuse-of-power complaint. In June, Sanders was accused of employing the @PressSec account to target the Red Hen—a restaurant in Virginia that, when she went to dine there, asked her to leave.

It’s what a battering ram does.

Perhaps Sanders’s greatest asset at the podium is her embodiment of the Trump voter. The supposedly populist President is tremendously wealthy, as are many top Administration figures: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Steve Mnuchin, and Kellyanne Conway. Like Sanders, Vice-President Mike Pence is also a heartland Christian, but he’s rarely on TV, and he lacks the combative instinct that she shares with Trump. Sanders’s briefings offer repeated confirmation to Trump’s base that the U.S. government is being run by Christians standing up to condescending Beltway insiders. In a characteristic flourish, Sanders defended immigrant-family separations by noting that “it is very Biblical to enforce the law.”

It may be biblical, but is it specifically Christian? It’s not very “if they take your coat, give them your shirt too,” now is it.

In the Obama Administration, press briefings happened almost daily, and regularly exceeded an hour. Sanders’s have become sporadic and typically last about twenty minutes. (Olivier Knox, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, has complained to Sanders about the infrequency of briefings.) According to the Washington Post, Sanders “manufactures urgency”—exuding a righteous impatience that simultaneously limits her exposure to difficult questions and makes her appear determined to keep reporters in their place. In previous Administrations, most press briefings were low-key affairs in which journalists downloaded policy details; reporters were allowed many follow-ups, and sometimes asked dozens of them. Sanders grumbles if someone asks more than two questions. A Post analysis showed that, in her first year, she spent less time informing the public than Spicer had done in half that time. When C-span asked Sanders why her briefings were so short, she said, “I don’t think I take as long to get to the point.”

This gets back to that point about being intelligent and informed, and being threatened by that. A normal adult presidency, however annoying it may find critical reporters, understands that it owes it to the public to keep reporters informed. This one has contempt for the very idea.

Reporters complain that Sanders’s briefings almost never involve substantive disclosures. Instead, she deflects questions and returns to the same talking points: “stock market, at an all-time high”; “isis, on the run.” A White House reporter told me, “I’ve never learned a single thing in that briefing room that’s been helpful to me. It’s the part of my job that I dread most. You’re either being spun or gaslit.” Mike McCurry, a press secretary under Bill Clinton, has lamented that, in the Trump era, live briefings have devolved into an “entertainment product.” More and more, Sanders presents a televised reënactment of Trump’s Twitter feed.

And what is that useful for?

When McCurry chastised a reporter, he generally did so off camera. But Trump thrives on bullying antagonists in public, and has urged his staff to “fight” the press. In Sanders, he has found an eager pugilist. After Trump tweeted that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand used to beg him for contributions at Trump Tower—and “would do anything for them”—a reporter asked Sanders if this had a sexual implication. “Only if your mind was in the gutter would you have read it that way,” she retorted. Sanders prefers short, tough interviews to “soft,” one-on-one encounters in which she might drop her guard and say something that she will regret. In public, she tends to handle reporters with the sort of eye-rolling derision that Fox News’ Tucker Carlson levies against liberal guests. In one notorious exchange, Sanders told CNN’s Jim Acosta, who she thinks performs for the cameras, “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences.”

So basically what Sanders does has nothing to do with informing reporters, but is instead just a branch of Trump’s Permanent Mass Rally.

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