D.C.'s New Parlor Game: Who Will Replace Sarah Sanders?
The news broke, appropriately enough, on Twitter.
“After 3 1/2 years, our wonderful Sarah Huckabee Sanders will be leaving the White House at the end of the month and going home to the Great State of Arkansas,” President Trump wrote in one tweet.
“She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job! I hope she decides to run for Governor of Arkansas - she would be fantastic. Sarah, thank you for a job well done!” he followed up in another.
As far as exit announcements go in this administration, Trump could have done worse. Much worse. Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was kicked out of the presidential motorcade. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired while on the toilet. But Sanders will leave with a glowing presidential reference and, apparently, a gubernatorial nomination.
The press secretary was grateful, and she showed it when the president paused an event on criminal justice reform in the East Room to call her onstage. “This has been the honor of a lifetime,” Sanders said. “I’ve loved every minute of it. … It’s truly the most special experience.”
Tears welled in the press secretary’s eyes as she said goodbye, but for 687 days and 103 briefings Sanders has been every bit the unflinching, bare-knuckled brawler that the president asked her to be. Now, everyone in Washington, D.C., is wondering the same thing: Who has the requisite temperament to replace her?
In some ways, Sanders is irreplaceable. Unique among Trump staffers, she got on the good side of him and managed to stay there, eclipsing the normal life cycle for the job. But there comes a point for an exit, her predecessor told RealClearPolitics. Because of the stress that ordinarily comes with the position, and because of the unique stress that comes with this president, Sean Spicer explained, “someone can only do it for so long.”
And for a long time, Sanders weathered every up and down like few others could. But eventually a scandal caught up with the press secretary that she couldn’t shake.
After James Comey was fired, she claimed “countless” agents at the bureau reported that they “had lost confidence” in the former FBI director. The Mueller report said otherwise, and Sanders admitted, according to the office of the special counsel, that “her comments were not founded on anything.”
Everything was over for Sanders, a senior administration aide told RCP, “once she got slammed in the Mueller report.” The aide praised her for refusing “to burn anybody” and accused Mueller of making “an unfair dig at her.”
“She’s by the far the best communications person the president has ever had,” the aide insisted in an opinion echoed by sources throughout Trump World. One adviser called her “a rock star.” Another, “a steady hand.” And third added the hope that “she really does run for governor.”
Arkansas won’t need a new governor until 2022 but the White House needs a press secretary now. There are plenty of logical choices.
Hogan Gidley is the deputy press secretary and the next in line.
Kellyanne Conway is a cable news favorite of the president and the recipient of a Hatch Act violation for talking too much about politics at the White House.
Kayleigh McEnany is national press secretary for the Trump campaign and already has her hands full.
Anyone, inside or outside the White House, could get the nod. Knowing the position is up for grabs, an aide jokingly told RCP about getting a haircut to look sharper. One name that has emerged with some seriousness is Stephanie Grisham. Several in Trump’s orbit are fans of the first lady’s spokeswoman.
“Melania loves her, and she’s captured POTUS’ attention in her ability to manage news cycles and understand their philosophy,” an adviser told RCP. “Tough as nails, very smart.”
All of that is speculation until the president makes up his mind. Only one thing is definite. The next press secretary must be loyal. “Having the trust and a real relationship with the president,” Spicer explained, “is crucial.”
Looking from the outside in, Ari Fleischer outlined the qualities of the ideal job candidate. He served as press secretary for President George W. Bush and he said whoever takes over for Sanders must have three things if the White House plans on putting the press secretary back in front of the press corps for the Daily Briefing.
“If they resume, they will need someone who, number one, understands President Trump, believes in President Trump, and will fight for President Trump,” Fleischer told RCP.
“Number two, it would help if they found someone with a good rapport with the press corps because this is a time to make that relationship better,” he continued.
“And number three, they better have damned thick skin.”
Sanders had each of those qualities — at different times to varying degrees. She got her start in politics when her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, ran for Senate (and lost) in 1992. Because of a small staff, she remembered in an interview with The Hill, she was stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors, putting up yard signs and fielding calls.
A more grown-up Sanders later worked at the Department of Education during the Bush presidency, left to open a consulting shop in Arkansas, and staffed her father’s doomed presidential campaign in 2016. When that ended, she jumped to the Trump campaign and later the White House.
Anyone who wants to fill her shoes has to have extraordinary patience, not only because this president governs unconventionally but also because he changes his mind frequently.
According to two sources with direct knowledge, Pete Hegseth learned this the hard way. The “Fox & Friends” co-host dined frequently with Trump and was left with “the strong impression” that he would become press secretary after Spicer stepped down.
And then, Trump changed his mind. “Nobody ever called him to say this isn’t going to happen,” a source told RCP. Hegseth watched then Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci announce on live television that Sanders would get the job.
“It just happened,” the source said.
For her part, the outgoing White House spokeswoman will leave Washington and return to deep red Arkansas where Trump remains popular. Her legacy will be debated and likely shaped by the press she leaves behind.
Mike McCurry, who served in the same role for Bill Clinton, said he expects Sanders will be remembered as “a careful combatant in the war between ‘the enemy of the people’ and the folks at the White House.”
“The truth is,” McCurry told RCP, “that anyone who handles the press is remembered more for the attitude of the president they worked for rather than how they did their job.”