Comedian Michelle Wolf headlined the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Saturday night, shocking the crowd and spinning up indignation among Republicans and even some journalists for accusing press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders of ... lying.
“Every time Sarah steps up to the podium,” Wolf started, “I get excited because I’m not really sure what we’re going to get — you know, a press briefing, a bunch of lies, or divided into softball teams.”
This isn’t exactly a controversial joke. Huckabee Sanders lies all the time. It’s not spin. It’s not an ideological narrative wrapped around shared facts. She states and defends stacks of untruths — from the motivations of Donald Trump accusers to the state of health care negotiations. Many of her most measurably false claims indict the character of entire groups of people, notably brown people. Mexican men are rapists. Immigrants vote illegally en masse.
Republicans, who’ve never called out Huckabee Sanders for any of her comments, had a lot to say Saturday night. Mike Huckabee, Sarah’s father and former governor of Arkansas, captured the sentiment when he tweeted: “The WHCD was supposed to celebrate the 1st Amendment. Instead they celebrated bullying, vulgarity, and hate.”
Wolf’s routine hit a nerve because it’s true. Huckabee Sanders represents White House policy, which includes smearing people for political gain and selling legislation through blatant falsehoods, like a health care repeal bill that would have cost millions their insurance.
But Washington insiders think standing at a podium and saying all this calmly is professional, and telling a joke about it is cruel. Until we take a hard look at Huckabee Sanders’s own words, though, the joke’s on us.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders tells a lot of lies
Huckabee Sanders stands poised in front of the White House press corps nearly every day, laying out the White House’s priorities and taking questions. Unlike her predecessor Sean Spicer, she keeps her cool or goes on the offense. She doesn’t backpedal. She doesn’t hide in the bushes. She’s a PR pro.
And in the face of tough questions, she says whatever she needs to get by. She lies. She repeats bizarre claims. She pretends that basic facts just do not exist:
During the health care fight of 2017, the White House spent a considerable amount of time trying to blame Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran for the demise of Obamacare repeal. They said he was hospitalized (he wasn’t). They said he was the deciding vote (he wasn’t). Still, Huckabee Sanders accepted and repeated the claims.
As the fight on the Hill played out, she also kept insisting the White House was “focused on making sure we have a health care system in place that actually works, doesn’t bankrupt the system, and helps protect Americans across the board.” None of the Republican proposals would have increased coverage, and she was never able to provide any kind of detail to support that claim.
President Trump claims millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election and that if they hadn’t, he would have won the popular vote. This is ... not true. But Huckabee Sanders is willing to repeat it: “We certainly know there were a large number of incidents reported,” she said in the briefing room. (The Washington Post puts the figure around four.)
Mexicans are rapists
After Trump took office, he defended his opening campaign speech line that Mexicans are rapists. He argued that 80 percent of women and girls who made the journey up to the United States from Central America are raped, and that that supports his claim:
Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower, when I opened, everybody said, “Oh, he was so tough.” And I used the word “rape.” And yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody’s ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.
Huckabee Sanders supported Trump’s claim at least twice. In one instance, she said: “There was a story, I believe it was the LA Times, I don’t have it here in front of me, that documented some of that. But this is a well-documented fact, that a lot of the people, I believe up to 80 percent in recent years, of women that are making that journey have been raped in that process. The president is saying that that’s simply unacceptable, and it should be looked at.”
That’s not actually what the LA Times article found. And Trump did not bring it up because he thinks we need to protect Central American migrants. When asked how the argument translates to immigrants coming in the United States, Trump said, “Well, somebody’s doing the raping.”
Trump accusers are the real liars
Huckabee Sanders is prepared to say — and has said — that every single one of the many women who have accused Trump of sexual harassment or assault is a liar. It “was the official White House position that all of these women are lying,” Huckabee Sanders said, “Yeah, we have been clear on that from the beginning, and the president has spoken on it.”
She’s also pretended these women just don’t exist. As Politico reported earlier in her tenure:
“The people of this country, at a decisive election, supported President Trump, and we feel like these allegations have been answered through that process,” Sanders told reporters Monday, hours after three of Trump’s accusers went on television to revive their claims.
“The American people knew this and voted for the president, and we feel like we’re ready to move forward in that process,” Sanders added.
(Huckabee Sanders offered a similar statement about Roy Moore, a onetime Alabama Senate candidate accused by many women of inappropriate behavior when they were teenagers.)
Lying is Trump administration policy
Wolf took some heat more broadly for a comment she made that was called gendered. “I actually really like Sarah,” Wolf said. “I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
There are different ways to read this line. It’s a joke about ruthlessly doing the job — embracing the tactic fully, even into a fake front. Unfortunately, it does stick out for the nod to makeup. And Huckabee Sanders has been attacked for her looks.
The way to think about Huckabee Sanders is through the lens of her job. That job is to serve as the voice of the Trump administration. She’s survived because she embraces a policy of not telling the truth — one that serves not only a convenient role in a chaotic administration but also an important political purpose. As my colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote of Trump:
He’s a man who doesn’t care much about the truth. He’s a man who cares deeply about loyalty. The two qualities merge in the way he wields bullshit. His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test.
Huckabee Sanders passes that test every day. She’ll stand in front of the nation and say whatever she needs to say. Trump comes first, not us. There’s nothing particularly funny about that.