“I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess, but please don’t take my words out of context.”
It was June of 2018, and they were fighting again, the White House press secretary and the White House press. This time, Sarah Sanders was sparring with CNN’s Jim Acosta. This time, the subject at hand was the Trump administration’s newly implemented “zero tolerance” policy when it came to immigration—a policy that had led, in practice, to the separation of thousands of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Tempers flared that hot summer day in the White House’s hermetic press room, and the anger was broadcast, as it so often is, on cable news.
“The attorney general, earlier today, said that somehow there’s a justification for this in the Bible,” Acosta said to Sanders. “Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from their mothers?”
“I’m not aware of the attorney general’s comments or what he would be referencing,” Sanders replied. “I can’t—”
“Is it a moral policy, in your view?” Acosta asked.
“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” Sanders replied. “That is, actually, repeated a number of times throughout the Bible. However, this—”
“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.
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.”
Her broader legacy, though, is an acquiescence to the idea that facts themselves have a political bias. The agent of a president who has transformed “fake news” from an offhanded insult into a democratic anxiety, Sanders has used her powerful pulpit to promote the “Fake News Awards,” her boss’s carnivalesque attempt to institutionalize his mockery of the American media. She has accused reporters of “purposefully misleading the American people.” She has deflected; she has belittled; she has eye-rolled; she has condescended; she has obfuscated; she has misled; she has lied. And she has treated it all as a battle to be won. So many of the public interactions Sanders has conducted with reporters—whether Acosta or April Ryan or Jim Sciutto or Brian Karem or the many other members of the press who are charged with reporting on the daily doings of the White House—have been wars in miniature. And, day by day, the martial logic lurking in the way Americans talk about their politics—the campaign and the press corps, the war room—has been made ever more literal. What is true about the world we all navigate, together? That becomes a less important question than who is winning in it.
Sanders has stood behind the lectern of the White House briefing room, the ground zero of American democracy, doing what every press secretary will: articulating an idea of what the country is—and of what the administration that is guiding the nation most readily prioritizes and most wholeheartedly believes. Her tenure serves as a reminder of what happens when partisanship, aided by the power of the presidency, is allowed to subsume everything else: traditions, norms, truth, people’s lives. In 2018, at the Women Rule Summit with Politico, the reporter Eliana Johnson asked Sanders what she hoped her White House legacy would be, when the time came to have one. “I hope that it will be that I showed up every day and I did the very best job that I could to put forward the president’s message,” Sanders replied. By bringing into existence the particular cynicisms of the post-truth press conference, that is precisely what she did.