The President of the United States is a bully who makes a mockery of his office, democratic institutions, and the English language. So is his press secretary. On Monday, during the last briefing before the Thanksgiving holiday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders treated the White House press pool the way a sadistic teen-ager would treat a group of third-graders. The journalists, for the most part, went along with it.
Sanders began her part of the briefing by saying that she was thankful for all the reporters in the room. “That goes without saying,” she added, in a tone that made it clear that the White House press secretary really does not like the White House press corps. There was slight, uncomfortable laughter in the room. Then Sanders listed the people and things for which she was actually grateful: her family, her faith, the military, the police, the firemen, and the first responders.
Unpleasant as her opening comment might have sounded, it’s all right for the press secretary to have an adversarial relationship with reporters; it is certainly better than a cozy relationship. But coziness seemed to be what Sanders was trying to elicit next. “If you want to ask a question, I think it’s only fair, since I’ve shared what I’m thankful for, that you start off with what you’re thankful for,” she said.
It is the job of reporters to ask questions, and it is Sanders’s job to answer them. That was why they were all gathered there: to do their jobs of asking and answering. Of course, this is merely a matter of convention; there is no law or rule to prevent Sanders from rejecting questions or from setting conditions for their asking. One might assume that the reporters in the room have the power, given that they serve as the informal representatives of the voting public. But this is not how this Administration interprets the relationship, and Sanders was reminding the press corps that she has the power to respond to their questions or not.
“Anybody want to be first on what they are thankful for?” Sanders asked. Her tone was menacing, the tone of a bully asking for a volunteer to be humiliated in front of the room. She called on April Ryan, of American Urban Radio Networks. Ryan was one of the few African-American reporters in the room, and her questions have clearly annoyed Sanders in the past. Ryan had tried, unsuccessfully, to ask a question during an earlier part of the briefing, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke about North Korea.
“April, you’ve been sooo eager,” Sanders said. There was laughter. There is always laughter when bullies mock their marks.
“I’m thankful for life,” Ryan said, going along with the rule proposed by Sanders. “I’m thankful for my children. I’m thankful for twenty years in this job, I’m thankful to be able to talk to you and question you every single day.” Ryan ended on a big, insincere smile.
“I feel the gratefulness here,” Sanders responded, with her own angry smile. There was a smattering of laughter.
As a person responding to a bully, Ryan had held her own: she had complied with the terms dictated, but she had not let herself be humiliated. But as a reporter in the White House briefing room, she had just been co-opted into a transparently hypocritical ritual. She was no longer an observer of the Trump Administration’s habit of lying; she had become complicit. She had also participated in the ritual of denigrating her profession. Ryan’s question was about North Korea and the apparent lack of reliable information on that country’s nuclear arsenal. But she had helped Sanders make that seem unimportant, compared with the petty power struggle in the room. When Ryan tried to ask a follow-up question about Trump’s continued Twitter war with North Korea, Sanders said, “April, I’m starting to regret calling on you first.” Then she moved on to the next question.
The next reporter, Francesca Chambers, of the Daily Mail, responded enthusiastically. “I will follow your lead,” she said, and expressed thanks for service members and the police, noting that her brother is a service member and her father a policeman. She asked an easily deflected question about the Alabama senatorial race.
Jon Decker, of Fox News, was thankful for his health, his family, his faith, and the fact that he lives “in the best country on the face of the Earth.”
“See, isn’t this nice?” Sanders asked.
“And I’m thankful, of course, that you address us every day here,” Decker continued. He asked if the President would be happy to see Roy Moore win in Alabama. Sanders avoided answering this question.
Blake Burman, of Fox Business Network, was thankful for his family, his parents, and his wife, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child. Cecilia Vega, of ABC News, was grateful for the First Amendment. Steven Herman, of Voice of America, was grateful for surviving the President’s Asia tour. Sarah Westwood, of the Washington Examiner, neglected to offer thanks. Instead, she asked two questions: Had the President talked to the senatorial candidate Roy Moore since allegations that he had sexually abused several young women first surfaced, on November 9th? Sanders said that he had not. What had the President meant, earlier that day, when he said that welfare reform was “desperately needed in this country”? Sanders answered that specifics would be forthcoming—her way of saying that it was anybody’s guess what Trump had meant.
Zeke Miller, from the Associated Press, launched straight into a question as well, asking about the lack of diversity among Trump’s judicial nominees. Sanders called him out, though: “You did break the rule,” she said, demonstrating that power grows if the rules are enforced selectively. Miller quickly said that he was grateful for everything, and pressed on with the question, which Sanders, again, deflected. Margaret Brennan, of CBS News, was thankful for the First Amendment, “and for this exercise.” A female reporter from Fox News, filling in for John Roberts, was grateful for the opportunity to attend the briefing, and for the fact that she had only one month to go until her pregnancy was over. She happened to have a relevant question: it concerned gratitude. The President had used the word “ungrateful” to describe the three U.C.L.A. freshmen who returned home after being detained in China on suspicion of shoplifting. Sanders deflected this question, but then Matthew Nussbaum, of Politico, asked why the President had tweeted that he “should have left them in jail.”
“Look, it was a rhetorical response,” Sanders said, asserting, in effect, that the President’s words have no meaning.
Finally, John Gizzi, of Newsmax, was thankful “for the position I have and the colleagues who are my friends. I’m thankful for my father, ninety-six years old and going strong, and to my wife, my heroine, thankful to her for saying ‘yes’ on the fourth request.” There was laughter. “My question is about Zimbabwe.” Much more laughter.
“That’s the best pivot I’ve ever seen,” Sanders said, as though questions about actual coups in actual countries, and the actual American position on them, were extraneous to the White House briefing. “I don’t have any announcements on our relationship with Zimbabwe at this time, but certainly we’ll make sure and keep you guys posted,” she said. “Again, want to wish everybody a happy Thanksgiving and thank you for participating in this very fun exercise.”
And it was over. The exercise had established that the White House press pool consists primarily of straight, pious white men. The press secretary had enlisted the reporters’ help in mocking the purpose of the briefing; no information was conveyed from the White House to the public. She had shown who was boss: she could hold journalists to an arbitrary rule by making them offer thanks before asking a question, which diminished the journalists’ ability to hold her to the task of answering their questions. She reaffirmed that both the President and she herself lie easily and blatantly—as he did when he issued a “rhetorical response” on the U.C.L.A. students, and as she did at the beginning of the briefing, when she claimed to be thankful for the reporters in the room. By making them laugh when she said that, and when she mocked April Ryan, and when she called the forced ritual a “fun exercise,” she gave them a role in debasing their profession and the job of reporting on the White House. This is how it happens: the matter was trivial, the whole spectacle lasted all of sixteen minutes, and we were all the worse for it.