WASHINGTON – The West Wing shouting match was so loud that more than a dozen staffers heard it.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cursed and yelled at White House counsel Don McGahn during the February confrontation, according to two people familiar with the episode. Misleading statements about the domestic abuse scandal that felled staff secretary Rob Porter had dragged the administration into a maelstrom of chaos and contradictory public statements.
Exasperated, Sanders told McGahn she would not continue to speak for the administration unless she was provided more information about Porter’s situation.
The dispute, which erupted in a hallway outside deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin’s office, was resolved after Sanders received the clarity she sought, the people familiar with the argument said. Hours later, Sanders returned to her lectern to field queries from a skeptical press corps, though her answers still left reporters with more questions.
The moment illustrates the precarious role Sanders has chosen to fill as the public face of the Trump administration — and the doubts about her credibility in representing a president who proudly traffics in mistruths and obfuscations.
Sanders was thrust into an especially harsh limelight over the past week. She was the subject of an acerbic broadside about her “bunch of lies” by comedian Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Then she was forced to explain the seemingly inconsistent accounts from her, President Donald Trump and his new personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about the hush money paid to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. The week was punctuated by an onslaught of commentary about Sanders’ character.
By virtue of her position, Sanders is inextricably bound in the mistruths of the Trump administration. She is a willing warrior for Trump, and her critics believe she should be held accountable for his utterances — from the untruthful to the racist to the sexist. Since taking office, Trump has made more than 3,000 false or misleading claims, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.
“When the president blithely admits to lying, it makes all those who are paid to repeat and defend his stories liars, as well,” said David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser under former President Barack Obama. “Their credibility is tied to his. It’s a high price to pay for a job, even in the White House.”
Sanders, 35, is no political ingénue. She was raised in the wild-and-wooly politics of Arkansas, the only daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee who grew up to work on his two unsuccessful presidential campaigns.
By the time she took over as White House press secretary from Sean Spicer last July, the administration’s penchant for misleading the public at the president’s direction was well-established. At his very first press briefing, Spicer vigorously misrepresented the size of Trump’s inaugural crowds, soaring to national fame as a laughingstock.
Those in Trump’s orbit argue that the attacks on Sanders have been more sustained and more personally vicious than those faced by press secretaries in previous administrations. They argue that in a hyper-polarized nation — and amid the frenzied environment nurtured by a president who is at war with what he calls the fake news media — Sanders has become an unwitting Rorschach test for the opinions of Trump’s critics.
Allies of Sanders say she often pushes back on Trump, who wants her to attack the media even harder and more frequently, and that other administrations have also faced credibility issues.
“It doesn’t matter who holds this job for President Trump, they’re going to be unfairly attacked and ridiculed,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser. “Since Sarah Huckabee Sanders works for President Trump, it seems to be open season on her professionally and personally.”
Sanders declined to be interviewed for this story.