In an increasingly rare briefing from the podium on Monday – her first in 42 days – Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced a White House press corps that felt much more like it was actually doing its job of holding the president to account than it has on previous outings.
Nominally to announce the president’s proposed budget, an almost entirely fictional exercise given the Democratic party now controls the House of Representatives, the briefing quickly veered into combative territory over Trump’s statements about alleged anti-Semitism in the Democratic party. On Friday, the president slammed the Democrats as an “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” party.
The tension between Sanders and reporters was so frosty by the end of the briefing that it led April Ryan, a veteran White House reporter, to note the “change in atmosphere in here.”
The first question Sanders was asked was whether Trump “believes that Democrats hate Jews,” referring to the preposterous statement the president made in response to the furore over criticism of the Israel lobbying group AIPAC by a Democratic representative, Ilhan Omar. The whole thing has been little more than an excuse for a political attack on one of America’s first female Muslim congressional representatives, and Trump has taken it as an opportunity to make political hay. But today, the White House press corps was having none of it.
The president, Sanders claimed, has “always been a friend to Israel and the Jews”. She said “it should be done like Steve King”, presumably suggesting that Omar should be formally censured by Congress, in the same manner as King, a self-professed white supremacist congressman. The president has remained entirely silent on King’s wide-ranging and unapologetic bigotry, as the reporter pointed out, protesting: “but the president has not condemned Steve King”. Sanders quickly moved on to another question.
The press corps had other ideas.
After a few more questions, another reporter said “I have a follow-up to my colleague’s question. Yes or no: does the president believe Democrats hate Jews?”
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Sanders said. “I can tell you–”
“Does he believe Democrats hate Jewish people,” the reporter pressed.
“I’m trying to answer the question. The president has clearly laid out his position on the matter,” Sanders said, saying the reporters should be asking the Democrats.
But this line didn’t work for her. “You didn’t answer the question. Yes or no. Does the president believe Democrats hate Jews?” Again, Sanders said, “you’d have to ask Democrats.”
After another couple of questions, another questioner, CNN’s Jim Acosta, returned again to the subject. “About the president’s comments on Democrats and Jewish people. Isn’t that rhetoric sort of beneath everybody?”
Sanders attempted to dodge the question with another preposterous attack line the White House has been trialling recently. “I think the real shame in this is that Democrats are perfectly happy coming together and agreeing with each other on ripping babies from the mother’s womb,” she said, referring to another ridiculous and untrue claim the president has recently started making.
Acosta kept going. “That is patently untrue,” he said. “Democrats don’t hate Jewish people. That’s silly. Not true.”
“They should call out their members by name,” Sanders said, clearly flustered.
“The president said after Charlottesville that there were ‘fine people’ among the Nazis,” Acosta said, referring to comments the president made after a march in 2017 by neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” during which a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was murdered.
“That is not what the president is saying. The president has been incredibly clear and consistently and repeatedly condemned hatred, bigotry and racism in all of its forms in America. To say otherwise is simply untrue,” Sanders said, a lie so obviously ridiculous as to be almost laughable.
The press corps still wasn’t done. “Since the president did say that about Charlottesville – ‘some very fine people on both sides’ – has he, in your opinion – or has he, for us, because I don’t remember it – condemned the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville for their actions against the Jewish Americans there?” Ryan, who was next up, asked. Again Sanders lied: “the president has condemned neo-Nazis and called them by name.”
It was a very effective moment, and what it signals is that the White House press corps is changing its approach from an every-reporter-for-themselves attitude to a more cooperative one. Of course, the White House briefing is political theatre: reporters showboat and Sanders and Trump lie to them. Acosta especially has become known for his combative questioning style. Every reporter has different stories they are working on, and different questions they need answering, and often the White House corps can be a herd of cats all trying to go in different directions.
That means Sanders – and Trump, too, when he gives press conferences – have frequently been able to dodge any particularly difficult question by simply moving on to the next reporter.
Monday’s briefing was different: we finally saw how powerful a check on executive power the press corps might be if it worked together – at least, to the extent of following up on the most egregious times the White House’s representative dodges a previous question.
If we see more reporters repeatedly following up on unanswered questions, and persistently pressing for answers, it will at least change the tone of the political theatre, by highlighting the flagrant way the administration dodges responsibility, rather than just giving the White House an opportunity to repeat their lies.
Anything that makes it harder for Sanders to weasel away from acknowledging Trump’s more appalling pronouncements can only be a good thing. Hopefully in the future we will see more briefings like this one.
You can watch the whole briefing here (Huckabee Sanders starts taking questions at 17:15):