Analysis: Sarah Huckabee Sanders Leaves White House After Contentious Encounters, Credibility Issues

Sanders’ relationship with the press had so deteriorated by the end of her two-year tenure that once frequent press briefings had become nonexistent

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will leave her post as White House press secretary at the end of the month having lost credibility as she tried to defend Trump’s misstatements, exaggerations and falsehoods in increasingly testy exchanges with reporters. 

Sanders’ relationship with the press had so deteriorated by the end of her two-year tenure that once frequent press briefings had become nonexistent. Her last formal briefing was on March 11 unless you count the "kids-only" briefing in April held for "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day." 

Sanders took over the lectern in the West Wing’s briefing room on July 23, 2017, after her predecessor, Sean Spicer, resigned. Initially Sanders joked with reporters, deflected questions she did not want to answer and even got a shout out from the White House communications director in the Obama administration, Jen Psaki. But she also accused reporters of deliberately putting out information that they knew to be untrue and as Trump made demonstrably false statements, she criticized journalists by name and called them the “enemy of the American people.”

Journalists weren't the only ones who questioned her truthfulness, in turn. Special counsel Robert Mueller's report revealed that Sanders' had made up comments in defending the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

On May 10, 2017, Sanders said "countless" FBI agents had told the White House they had lost confidence Comey, but Mueller determined that Sanders' "comments were not founded on anything."  

"Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from 'countless members of the FBI' was a 'slip of the tongue,'" Mueller's report said. "She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made 'in the heat of the moment' that was not founded on anything." 

Following the release of Mueller's report, Sanders continued to defend her evidence-free remarks, apologizing only for not being "a robot like the Democratic Party." 

The daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders made other headlines at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2017 when she was subjected to a scorching roast by comedian Michelle Wolf, who joked that Sanders burns facts and uses the ash to create “a prefect smoky eye,” and again in June of that year when the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, asked her to leave. 

Trump described her on Thursday as a "warrior" while Sanders, for her part, said she would remain a loyal supporter to the president. 

With Sanders on her way out the door to return with her family to Arkansas -- where she may run for governor -- here is a look back at some of her top contentious encounters with reporters covering the White House.

Confrontations With CNN’s Acosta
Sanders was accused of tweeting out a doctored video in November 2018 that made it appear that CNN’s White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, had touched a White House intern who was trying to take a microphone from him. Acosta’s press pass was suspended after he refused to relinquish the microphone to the intern during a heated exchange with Trump during a press conference.

Sanders said Acosta put “his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job,” an assertion that did not appear to be supported by the original version of the video.

Sanders already had a difficult relationship with Acosta, who earlier had asked her to disavow President Donald Trump’s characterization of the media as “the enemy of the people.” She deflected the request and instead said, without offering evidence, that “The media has attacked me personally on a number of occasions, including your own network. Said I should be harassed as a life sentence, that I should be choked.”

The White House quickly reinstated Acosta’s press pass after CNN filed a lawsuit and a federal judge ordered his pass be restored temporarily. 

Arrests at the Border
Sanders admitted that she misspoke when she said that Customs and Border Protection officers in 2018 arrested 4,000 known or suspected terrorists who came across “our southern border.”

“I should have said 4,000 at all points of entry, not just at the southern border,” she said in January.

NBC News wrote that the 4,000 figure was from 2017 not 2018 data and referred to stops made by the Department of Homeland Security across the globe, mostly at airports, in the 2017 fiscal year not 2018. The Department of Homeland Security prevented nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists from "traveling to or entering the United States."

No immigrant has been arrested on the southern border on terrorism charges in recent years.

Hush Money to Stormy Daniels
After Rudy Giuliani revealed in May 2018 that Trump had reimbursed his personal lawyer for a $130,000 payment to hush up Stormy Daniels, Sanders struggled to explain her comments echoing Trump’s assertions just a month earlier that he did not know about the payment.

“We give the very best information that we have at the time,” she responded on May 3, 2018. “I do that every single day and will continue to do that every day I’m in this position.”

One reporter asked: “Were you lying to us at the time? Or were you in the dark?”

Daniels has claimed a sexual encounter with the president, which Trump denies.

In April 2018 aboard Air Force One, Trump responded “no” when asked if he knew about the payment. As to why his lawyer, Michael Cohen, had made the payment if there was no truth to the allegation, Trump told the reporters that they would have to ask Cohen. He also claimed that he did not know where Cohen had gotten the money from to make the payment. The next month Giuliani, without first warning Sanders, admitted on “Hannity” on Fox News that Trump had reimbursed Cohen.

That August, as Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws, he implicated the president in the payments, saying “a candidate for federal office” (in other words Trump) had directed him to make them.

Trump Tower Meeting
Sanders refused to explain in June 2018 why she told reporters Trump “certainly didn’t dictate” the statement released by his son Donald Trump Jr. about the 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between Trump’s campaign, a Russian lawyer and others — when in fact he did.

The president’s lawyers in a letter to Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrote that Trump “dictated a short but accurate” statement.

Donald Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting after he was promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, but later said the meeting was about adoptions.

The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, reportedly focused on efforts to repeal the Magnitsky Act, which has been used to impose sanctions on Russians officials believed to be responsible for human rights violations. Their assets have been frozen and they are banned from entering the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated when the law was passed in 2012 by banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans.

In January 2019, Veselnitskaya was charged by federal prosecutors in Manhattan of obstructing a separate investigation into money laundering. She is not in the United States.

African American employment
Last August, Sanders said that Trump, in his first year and a half in office, had tripled what President Barack Obama had in eight years for African American employment. called her statement false. Sanders said Trump had created 700,000 new jobs for African Americans compared to only for 195,000 for Obama, but the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that under Obama, African American employment rose just under 3 million.

Sanders later tweeted a correction. 

Vetting of Diversity Visa Applicants
In a press briefing in November 2017, Sanders claimed a day after a terrorist attack in New York City left eight people dead, that diversity visa applicants were not vetted.

“You can’t randomly select people and not have them thoroughly vetted and not have the ability to know whether or not these people want to do good things or bad things when they get here,” she said. noted that those eligible for a visa through the diversity lottery must undergo a review of their passport, police and medical records and education or work experience.

Chicago Gun Violence
Sanders, in a claim after the massacre in Las Vegas that called “Pants on Fire,” said that Chicago provided evidence that gun control laws do not work.

"I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn’t helped there," Sanders said.

Chicago does not have the toughest gun laws in the United States, wrote, and called some Illinois’ laws lenient.

More on James Comey’s Firing
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Sanders repeated the assertion from the White House that Trump fired FBI Director James Comes in May 2017 on the recommendation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general.

“I think he’s heard from the rank and file of the FBI, but particularly someone who had done a thorough review and someone who has the respect and reputation that the deputy attorney general has, he took that seriously,” quoted Sanders as saying in the May 10, 2017, interview. “He took the recommendation seriously. And he made a decision based on that.”

The next day Trump undercut Sanders and other White House officials by telling NBC’s Lester Holt that he was going to fire Comey regardless of the recommendation and that “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia” played into his decision.

"Substantial evidence indicates that the catalyst for the President’s decision to fire Comey was Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation, despite the President’s repeated requests that Comey make such an announcement," Mueller wrote in his report, which was released to the public in a redacted form on April 18, 2019. 

Mueller determined that "the President and White House aides initially advanced a pretextual reason to the press and the public for Comey’s termination."

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