NOT for a good reason, of course, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is again in the headlines. The extraordinary heated exchange between her and CNN’s Jim Acotsa on her refusal to say the media is not the enemy of the people took an ugly turn when Acosta walked out of the customary weekly White House press briefing in disgust. ‘I walked out of the end of that briefing because I am totally saddened by what just happened. Sarah Sanders was repeatedly given a chance to say the press is not the enemy and she wouldn’t do it. Shameful’ is how Jim Acosta tweeted after this bitter episode.
The fiery exchange started when Acosta followed up on another reporter’s previous question about Ivanka Trump’s comments that she does not agree with her father that the press is the country’s enemy. Acosta requested her to say that the press is not the enemy of the people, Sarah Sanders instead started reading a prepared statement that encompassed a long list of her personal grievances with the press including how she was cruelly made fun of by stand up comedian Michelle Wolf’s at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association’s Dinner.
Without going into the details of further exchange of tirades between the two on the subject-matter that eventually led to Acosta’s protest walkout from the session, one thing is very much clear that Sarah Sanders had already anticipated that the press would certainly ask questions on the topic of Trump’s views on the press at the weekly briefing session and she came well prepared, obviously with the consent of president Trump himself, to launch a counter-attack by enlisting all her ‘sufferings’ at the hands of the media. Although Acosta tried his best to compel her to say at something to disavow president Trump’s remarks, Sanders was in no mood to show any signs of back down. In a way, she has made it loud and clear that she stands firmly with her boss.
Just two months back, she was in the news after her ‘polite’ expulsion from the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Apparently that incident was the part of the fierce backlash over the policy of the Trump administration that had forced more than 2,300 children to be separated from their parents at the Mexican border. But her expulsion for the Red Hen restaurant was more than just a symbolic protest against the Trump administration. The fact is that the Americans do not consider Sarah Sanders just a White House press secretary, they perceive her as the main spokesperson and advocate of president Trump, a sort of devotee who can go to any extent to defend every deed, right or wrong, of her boss.
Indubitably, Sarah Sanders is the most illustrious White House press secretary of the recent times. There has been a long list of White House press secretaries since Herbert Hoover’s presidency in 1929, who mostly kept a low profile, but none, with the exception of her predecessor Sean Spicer, has been able to grab the public and media attention as much as she does now. Sean Spicer, the first White House press secretary of the Trump administration, served for almost six months but his period was laced with a number of controversies and skirmishes with the White House media corps.
Sean Spicer created a stir within his first month of his stint at the White House, when he openly criticised the American media for underestimating the size of crowds for president Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony. Spicer bragged that the ceremony had drawn the ‘largest audience to ever to witness an inauguration’. Obviously, this was a totally false claim that naturally attracted a lot of flakes from the press. Later, Spicer sheepishly defended his previous statements by saying ‘sometimes we can disagree with the facts’.
Although it was subsequently reported that Spicer was forced by Trump himself to make such lofty claims about the crowds at the inauguration ceremony because Trump was unhappy with the ‘unfair and biased’ coverage of his inauguration by the media. But this was just the beginning of Spicer’s highly controversial spell as the press secretary to Donald Trump. His bullying attitude towards the press was very evident in all his actions.
In February 2017, several news outlets — including the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Politico — were selectively blocked by the White House from an off-camera briefing (or ‘gaggle’) with Spicer, a move that sparked severe reaction from the outlets concerned, as well as by the White House Correspondents’ Association. This was a blatantly biased action which compelled Donald Trump to start thinking about the removal of Spicer.
Eventually, due to his contentious relationship with the media and growing gaffes, Spicer had to vacate the seat for his then deputy, Sara Sanders, who, courtesy her exceedingly egotistical and pugnacious style, has further chiselled the gap between the White House and the press. Her signature stony and stern facial expressions, during her interactions with the White House media corps, have certainly earned her an image of a robotic personality who has only one-point agenda; no matter what, President Trump is always right and the media is always biased.
Sean Spicer was certainly a different kind of press secretary who never hesitated from indulging in personalised fights with the White House correspondents of media. This was a relatively new phenomenon but Sarah Sanders has definitely eclipsed Spicer in this domain. Spicer’s spell looks pale when viewed against the long list of controversies kicked off by Sanders. Her harsh and often very derogatory remarks have touched a new low that was never seen at the press room podium of the White House. ‘Your mind is in the gutter’, shouted Sara Sanders in one of her press briefings while responding to one of the reporter’s question about the resignation of former staff secretary Rob Porter, after two of his former wives accused him of abuse.
There is an unending list of such instances where Sarah Sanders resorted to such dismissive gestures and ready insults. She is perhaps the most known female face of the Trump administration — even more than Ivanka Trump and Melania Trump — and she does her best to truly reflect President Trump’s disdain for the journalists and media.
Interestingly, unlike most of the White House spokespersons of the past who were often journalists themselves or associated with the press, both Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders have no journalistic credentials and both have treated the media in similar contemptuous fashion. There are a lot of similarities between the styles of Sarah Sanders and Sean Spicer — giving false statements and facts, unnecessarily defending Donald Trump and bullying the White House press corps. But there is no match for her typical curled-lip sneers that she throws while tackling the pricking questions from the press gallery. The American media has not been merciful towards her either and she has been subjected to all kind of abhorrent and despicable personal attacks in the print, digital as well as electronic media.
The relationship between any White House press secretary and any press corps assigned to cover that White House has always been tense and fractious but the intensity of existing tension between Sarah Sanders and her audience in the briefing room has been unprecedented in the recent history. A vast majority of the Americans, who are mostly distrustful and critical of the press in general, is overwhelmingly siding with the journalists.
The problem with Sarah Sanders is that the prime point of her job description is to ‘unequivocally’ defend the Trump policies at any cost and she knows only one way to defend it — the arrogant and belligerent way. Being the chief spokesperson for Donald Trump, she tries to personify the dictatorial style of her boss and, in the process, she goes overboard on most of the occasions, resulting in more controversies and more hullabaloos.
Recently, although she has categorically denied through her tweets, rumours have started making rounds in Washington that Sarah Sanders is planning to leave the job. The detractors of Sarah Sanders will keep growing in numbers in the briefing room unless she tones down her cantankerous style. But, for the time being, she appears to be least bothered about the hate element that has seeped into the anti-Trump media camp gradually.
Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance contributor from Karachi, Pakistan.
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