“But where in the Bible does it say—” Acosta began.
“Hold on, Jim. If you’ll let me finish.”
“—it’s okay to take children away from their parents?”
“Again, I’m not going to comment on the attorney’s specific comments that I haven’t seen.”
“You just said it’s in the Bible to follow the law.”
“That’s not what I said.”
A degree of antagonism is an integral element of the White House press secretary’s role as currently configured; what Sanders brought to the public-facing aspect of the job, however, was an antagonism that was sharpened by the demands of political theater. Sanders, who announced her resignation today (the president hinted that she might next run for governor of her home state, Arkansas), had all but stopped giving televised press briefings by the end of her 23-month tenure. When she did provide briefings, however, she conducted those events as spectacles of partisanship and wearying demonstrations of gladiatorial ennui.
I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, Sanders told the reporter, on that heated day last June, and it wasn’t an attack on his intelligence so much as an attack on the intelligence of the whole system he is part of. It was a comment that made the entire exercise—the exchange of information, the performance of democracy that is played out in the White House briefing room—seem silly and pointless and sad. And it was a comment that made the very, very big thing—in this case, the separation of migrant families, the relocation of children to cages—seem, for the viewers who watched the exchange, like something decidedly small.
Read: The world burns. Sarah Sanders says this is fine.
The White House press secretary—the office, if not the person—is an outgrowth of the idea that, in a democracy, information matters, and facts matter, and while politicians and the press may tangle and tussle, they are ultimately on the same team. Sanders, who ascended to the press-secretary role in July of 2017, after the brief and peevish tenure of Sean Spicer, publicly rejected that idea. To watch a Sanders press conference, or to watch her representing the White House on cable news, was to be confronted with a vision of America that is guided by political Darwinism—an environment in which everything is a competition, with the winner determined by who can shout the loudest, who can distract the most effectively, who can get in the best insult before the time for questioning is over.
Here is some of the misinformation Sanders has spread on behalf of the White House: She has insisted that her boss never “promoted or encouraged violence,” although Donald Trump, among many other such promotions, said of a protester who’d been ejected from a 2016 rally, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” She has outright dismissed the stories of the multiple women who have accused Trump of sexual abuse as lies. She has told reporters that she’d heard from “countless” FBI agents who were happy that Trump had fired James Comey in 2017; she would later characterize that, to Robert Mueller, as a mere “slip of the tongue.”