Updated 5:59 p.m. | White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who shut down daily briefings and was frequently accused of making false statements, is leaving her post at the end of this month and returning to her home state of Arkansas, President Donald Trump announced Thursday.
Sanders said she was “blessed and forever grateful” to Trump for the opportunity to serve, adding that she was “proud of everything he’s accomplished.”
She has avoided the White House podium, at Trump’s direction, for over 90 days after her soon-to-be former boss said the media was too harsh on her and asked unfair questions. She replaced her briefings, which usually lasted around 20 minutes, with impromptu “gaggles” in the White House’s north driveway following cable news hits, typically on Fox News. Those almost always lasted under or around 10 minutes.
Democrats have often slammed Sanders, saying she has repeated false statements first uttered by the president or created her own.
Sanders’ departure at the end of this month will leave the television- and media-focused Trump without his top two communications officials. He ousted former Fox executive Bill Shine in February and has yet to replace him. (White House aides have never said in private conversations that the president has interviewed candidates for the communications director position.)
Trump called Sanders “a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job,” before endorsing her to become chief executive of her home state, a job her father, Mike Huckabee, once held.
“I hope she decides to run for Governor of Arkansas — she would be fantastic. Sarah, thank you for a job well done!” Trump wrote of his second press secretary.
Speaking to a small group of reporters later Thursday in her office, Sanders said she informed the president of her plans earlier in the day. She sidestepped a question about whether he tried to talk her into staying, calling him “supportive” and “understanding.”
She did little to dissuade reporters that she may one day take Trump up on his call that she return to the Arkansas governor’s mansion.
“I’ve learned to never rule anything out,” she said about a potential gubernatorial run.
A departure in the “next few weeks” would give Trump time to hire — or promote — a replacement just as the 2020 campaign season heats up, she said. It would also allow her to spend time with her three young children and “go home,” Sanders said, growing slightly emotional when talking about her home state.
After holding just two formal press briefings so far this year, Sanders was defiant when asked if she regrets ending them.
“No, I don’t,” she said, insisting that the Trump White House was the “most accessible” one ever.
One of the most criticized officials to hold the office, Sanders admitted she wishes she would have certain situations differently — but declined to be more specific.
With her departure, Sanders will be just the latest in a long line of Trump officials who have left their West Wing or Cabinet jobs. Last year, the president shrugged off his record turnover pace, saying, “Everyone leaves.”
“At a certain point everyone sort of leaves, you have to leave,” he told Fox News last July when asked about rumors then that Sanders was on her way out. “I’m sort of just standing like a ship, just keep going, bing, bing.”
How people assess Sanders’ legacy will likely will depend on their political leanings. Trump is popular among Republicans and she provided a staunch defense of his every action and statement. Big majorities of Democrats in public polls hold the opposite view of the president, however.
Trump critics will likely latch on to her admission to former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, revealed in his final report, that she made false statements to reporters about the reason for FBI Director James Comey’s ouster.
“We’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things,” she told a reporter in May 2017, asserting that rank-and-file agents wanted Comey replaced, according to Mueller’s report.
She told Mueller’s team the comment had been a “slip of the tongue,” adding that a similar remark in an interview was made “in the heat of the moment.”
Asked in late April how Sanders handled the job, a veteran of Trump’s White House communications team defended her.
“You have to understand what Sarah is dealing with. She’s got this unique president who doesn’t always follow the rules — or what Washington says the rules are,” the former official said, granted anonymity to be candid. “Then she was dealing with the various factions inside the West Wing. Ultimately, her job was to go out there and articulate the president’s message. That’s what she’s done.”
Trump asked Sanders to say a few words during an unrelated event Thursday in the East Room. She praised Trump and her team, saying once she returns to private life she will be one of the most “outspoken” advocates for his presidency.
In late April, Democratic lawmakers wasted little time following the release of a redacted version of the Mueller’s report, with several calling for her ouster over the same instances that she misled reporters.
She also had a prickly relationship with reporters. Her most memorable battles came with CNN’s Jim Acosta, Playboy columnist Brian Karem and American Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan.
In April, Sanders and Ryan engaged in a war of words after Ryan went on CNN and blasted the press secretary for Mueller’s findings.
“Not only does [Sanders] not have any credibility left, she lied,” Ryan said in late April. “She outright lied and the people, the American people can’t trust her. They can’t trust what’s said from the president’s mouthpiece — spokesperson — from the people’s house. Therefore, she should be let go. She should be fired. End of story.
“When there is a lack of credibility there, you have to start ... lopping the heads off,” Ryan added.
Sanders fired back in her own television interview.
“Look, I’ve had reporters say a lot of things about me. They said I should be choked. They said I should deserve a lifetime of harassment,” she told Fox News, without naming names. “But I certainly never had somebody saying that I should be decapitated.
“This takes us to a new low even for the liberal media,” said Sanders, whom her boss on Thursday called “a warrior.”
“I think it just once again proves why this journalist,” she said in a rebuke of Ryan, “isn’t taken seriously.”
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