The only thing worse than the near extinction of press briefings in the Trump White House might be actually having a briefing.
In her first appearance behind her iconic podium in 42 days, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday did nothing to answer questions boiling up about President Donald Trump, the administration and associated scandals during her long absence.
But Sanders was more than happy to use reporters’ questions to spread the latest toxin injected into Washington’s political bloodstream by the President – the ideas that Democrats want to kill babies and they hate Jews.
Pressed for answers in her first briefing since Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen’s blockbuster testimony on Capitol Hill, Sanders deflected on explosive new details about Trump’s hush money payments to women before the 2016 election.
“I’m not aware of those specific, uh, checks,” Sanders said.
She also couldn’t say when the President will install a permanent defense secretary – at a time when the US remains at war across the globe.
“When the President’s ready to make an announcement on that front, he certainly will,” said Sanders, who was preceded at the podium by Acting Budget Director Russell Vought.
She dodged answering about claims Trump had tried to use the Justice Department to block the AT&T merger with Time Warner, the parent company of CNN – a possible abuse of power.
“I’m not aware of any conversations around that matter,” she told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
But she quickly took the chance to reignite controversy over Trump’s comment last week that Democrats are an “anti-Jewish party” following remarks critical of Israel’s American supporters by Muslim Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
“Frankly, I think you should ask Democrats what their position is,” Sanders said, seizing on a chance to deepen divides between the Democratic leadership and a Washington neophyte who was chastised by her party bosses.
“I think that the real shame in all of this is that Democrats are perfectly capable in coming together and agreeing on the fact that they’re comfortable ripping babies straight from a mother’s womb or killing a baby after birth,” Sanders said, hitting another issue – abortion – that resonates with Trump’s conservative base.
Monday’s contentious briefing was the latest sign of how the White House, lacking the cushion of a Republican majority in the House, is already initiating an all-out assault designed to present Democrats as radical and extreme and unfit to oust Trump in 2020.
Even from the once-dignified surroundings of the White House Briefing Room, the President is willing to send out his subordinates to obfuscate and stir up the outrage that seems to be his natural political habitat.
But in a broader sense, Monday’s theatrics reflected a wider truth about the Trump administration: its allergy to scrutiny and willingness to just refuse to address scandals any one of which might have proved fatal to previous presidencies.
Sanders is far from the first White House press secretary to take political swipes from the podium – Ari Fleischer and Robert Gibbs in recent years were particularly astute partisan tacticians for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.
But even in contentious exchanges between those two ex-campaign operatives and reporters, there was a sense that an important exercise in democracy and accountability was playing out in which those in power had at least to answer for their actions.
White House press secretaries are public servants and are paid by taxpayers. Most have at least sought to give the impression that they are a conduit between the press and the American people and the President – even if that’s a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.
There is little such sense in this administration – partly because briefings have become so rare – and because this White House seems to scoff at the belief it should even pretend it is opening up for scrutiny.
Briefings by Sanders are scarce, sharp and short, and reverberate with barely disguised ill feeling between reporters and the administration of a President who has branded journalists “enemies of the people.”
The fact that Sanders has to answer to Trump’s daily venom, which would be seen as unpresidential in any other administration but has dulled public outrage with its volume, means she has one of the toughest jobs in Washington.
But there is no denying she is good at that job, which requires unshakable loyalty to her boss and the adoption of his abrasive political methods even at the risk of her own reputation outside the conservative media world.
Love for Sanders
Sanders’ own whip-smart political instincts and tendency to visibly infuriate reporters with her brassiness and non-answers during the briefings play into the administration’s contention that it is the victim of an orchestrated campaign of unfair press coverage.
Her televised theatrics are one reason why she has become a hugely popular figure on the right and why her Twitter mentions pulsate with love from Trump supporters.
It’s not clear whether Monday was a one-off or Sanders is committing to a regular briefing schedule. She rightly pointed out that the President himself often takes questions from reporters – although his freewheeling sessions spare him from the formal structure with follow-up questions by successive journalists, which offers the best chance to hold power to account.
Sanders’ attacks on Democrats on Monday prove that she’s assimilated Trump’s characteristic tactic of stoking anger and new controversies to deflect from his own political liabilities.
With the media now apparently condemned to unpick the President’s claims about Democrats and Jewish people, the focus is not on Friday’s lame monthly job numbers, or Wednesday’s sentencing of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, or the President’s apparently unraveling North Korea diplomacy.
In this administration, treating the press with scorn is what sells – after all, soon after Sanders left the briefing room on Monday, Trump sent out a political appeal claiming that the “mainstream media have never been more dishonest than they are today.”
Baiting reporters is popular with Trump voters who prefer their news from conservative outlets and are willing to accept his advice that they should rely on him and not the media for facts.
It’s also the reflection of a choice made long ago by Trump to anchor his presidency on the fervent faith of a political base that is short of a majority of voters but has helped him effectively seize control of the Republican Party and retain the support of most of its voters.
Monday’s briefing took place after Democrats complained about the tone of public remarks by Trump in which he said that the “Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They’ve become an anti-Jewish party, and that’s too bad.”
It was an incendiary claim to make about a party whose recent presidents, including Obama and Bill Clinton, have expressed reverence for Israel, and whose leaders in Congress, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have long records of support for the predominantly Jewish state.
According to exit polls, 79% of Jewish voters supported Democratic candidates in the midterm elections in November.
Meanwhile, Trump, whose daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are devout Jews, was accused of fomenting anti-Semitism himself with a closing 2016 campaign ad that featured images of prominent Jewish figures such as George Soros, then-Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and financier Lloyd Blankfein along with a warning of the threat from “global special interests.”