- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2017

Sarah Huckabee Sanders doesn’t do drama — that much is clear from her first month on the job as White House press secretary.

With a sardonic wit and an unflappable demeanor, Mrs. Sanders has lowered the temperature in the press briefing room, even as President Trump’s relationship with the press sinks arguably to a new low point.

On her first day back at the White House podium after Mr. Trump’s turbulent two-week working vacation in New Jersey, Mrs. Sanders greeted the press corps in Washington with her trademark brand of sarcasm and a smile as she faced what is routinely a hostile room.

“It’s good to be back,” she told reporters. “You guys don’t seem nearly as excited. I thought for sure there’d be balloons or something.”

People who have worked with Mrs. Sanders describe her as levelheaded under the stress of one of the most demanding jobs in Washington.

“She is calm and collected under pressure,” said Michael Short, a former assistant White House press secretary. “She understands what the president wants and expects and is able to deliver. She has a good relationship with the president, and that’s all you can really ask for.”

Humility is another word that her associates often use to describe Mrs. Sanders.

“Sometimes the people who brag the most aren’t always what they seem to be,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who has worked with the White House communications team. “She comes across as a very humble, genuine person who is hardworking and gets the job done every day. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff.”

An evangelical who believes in praying every day “in the best of times and the worst of times,” Mrs. Sanders, 35, said her faith helps keep her grounded in the adversarial position as Mr. Trump’s chief defender against a mostly liberal press corps.

“I knew there would be a natural tension between the press and the administration, but I have been surprised by the level of hostility I sometimes sense when dealing with the press,” Mrs. Sanders told The Washington Times. “I’m here to help the president promote his agenda, and I stay focused on that and not let other people bring me down. I also rely on my family and my faith to keep my spirits up on the tough days.”

She is the first working mother to hold the job — the other female White House press secretaries were Dee Dee Myers in 1993 and Dana Perino in 2007. Mrs. Sanders and her husband, Republican consultant Bryan Sanders, have three children younger than 6.

In one of her first briefings as press secretary, Mrs. Sanders said her status as a working mother “says less about me than it does about this president.”

“It’s not just with personnel; it’s about people and it’s about policy,” she said. “Empowering working moms is at the heart of the president’s agenda, particularly when it comes to things like tax reform.”

When the West Wing was in turmoil from another staff shake-up in late July — the hiring of communications director Anthony Scaramucci prompted the resignations of press secretary Sean Spicer and Mr. Short, followed quickly by the firing of Mr. Scaramucci — Mrs. Sanders joked that the disarray was nothing compared with raising three small children.

“If you want to see chaos, come to my house with three preschoolers,” she told reporters. “This doesn’t hold a candle to that.”

The youngest of three children of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Janet Huckabee, Mrs. Sanders, 35, was born in Hope, Arkansas — the hometown of former President Bill Clinton. She became immersed in politics around the age of 8, knocking on doors for her father’s first campaign for governor.

She speaks with her father most mornings and sometimes gets advice on how to approach her job.

“My parents have always told me to be honest and always be myself,” she said. “I try to live by both of those things, and so far it’s served me pretty well.”

As a 20-year-old at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, where she was elected student body president and was active in Republican organizations, she protested a judge’s decision that banned out-of-town college students from voting in elections in the county where they were attending school. Her father, the governor, called the ruling an outrage.

She worked for a variety of Republican campaigns after college, including as a field coordinator for her father’s 2002 re-election bid for governor, and for President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in Ohio in 2004. She managed Sen. John Boozman’s campaign in Arkansas in 2010 and was an adviser to Sen. Tom Cotton’s campaign in 2014.

Last year, after managing her father’s campaign in the Republican presidential primary, Mrs. Sanders was tapped as a senior communications adviser for Mr. Trump’s campaign.

She said at the time that she joined Mr. Trump’s campaign “because he is a champion of working families — not Washington/Wall Street elites.”

“Like the other Republican candidates, Mr. Trump is pro-life, pro-marriage and will appoint conservatives to the courts,” she said. “What makes Mr. Trump my choice for president is he will break the grip of the donor class on our government and make it accountable to working families again.”

She was immediately promoted as press secretary upon the resignation of Mr. Spicer, whose contentious briefings had become such a big ratings staple of left-leaning cable networks that the White House stopped televising them.

“The quick succession there was a vote of confidence by the president,” said a Republican close to the White House. “He knew he wanted to elevate her when it came time. The president’s been routinely pleased when she goes out on TV and when she conducts the briefing. It’s something that he cares about. Is it the same thing as the Sean Spicer show? No. But in some ways, Sarah can de-escalate some of the tensions in the press room. And she can maybe get the spotlight off the position a little bit.”

There are other stylistic differences with the way Mr. Spicer handled the job. Where he often arranged questions via Skype from journalists outside Washington, Mrs. Sanders has taken to reading aloud occasional letters to the president, including one from a 9-year-old boy named Dylan who asked Mr. Trump, “Can we be friends?”

“I’m happy to say that I directly spoke to the president, Dylan, and he would be more than happy to be your friend,” Mrs. Sanders announced from the podium.

Nobody has illusions about the difficulty of her task, especially with Mr. Trump’s war with the media intensifying in the aftermath of a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president has blamed the media for misinterpreting his views about the causes of the violence after saying “many sides” were responsible.

Mr. Trump called the media coverage “some of the worst and most dishonest Fake News reporting I have ever seen!”

At a campaign-style rally last week in Phoenix, he told supporters that many journalists are “sick people.”

“I really think they don’t like our country,” the president said. “It’s time to expose the crooked media deceptions and to challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions.”

Asked if the president’s relationship with the media is irretrievably broken, Mrs. Sanders told The Washington Times aboard Air Force One last week that Mr. Trump still believes “there are good people within the press corps.”

“I don’t ever like to think that anything is irreparable,” she said. “But I do think that there are steps that need to be taken to make stories more accurate and to make sure that we’re presenting the American people with the most — the best information possible, and let them make up their mind on where they stand on particular issues.”

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