WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is facing a barrage of questions about whether she purposely misled the American people amid fallout over Rudy Giuliani's stunning revelation about hush money paid by President Donald Trump's lawyer to a porn star who alleges a tryst with Trump.
“Again, I gave you the best information that I had,” Sanders said over and over again Thursday in response to questions about why the White House failed to disclose that Trump had reimbursed his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, for the $130,000 payment to keep Stormy Daniels quiet.
“Were you lying to us at the time? Or were you in the dark?” one reporter asked.
It was an awkward position for Sanders, who is tasked with speaking on behalf of the American president. It also highlighted the difficulty the White House communications office has had in navigating an unpredictable and free-wheeling president.
“As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” Trump tweeted last year.
Sanders on Thursday had to acknowledge that Giuliani hadn't given her a heads-up that he would reveal that Trump had reimbursed Cohen. She said she didn't know about the reimbursement at all until Giuliani's interview Wednesday night.
“I'm not part of the legal team and wouldn't be part of those discussions,” she said when asked whether she'd been caught off guard.
It was an omission by design.
“They were (caught off guard). There was no way they wouldn't be,” Giuliani told CNN on Thursday in reference to White House staffers. “The President is my client. I don't talk to them.”
Jason Miller, who has worked for both Trump and Giuliani and remains in close touch with both teams, said White House staffers shouldn't have to deal with issues like Cohen and the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“Finally, for the first time there's now an external operation that's handling such matters,” he said, describing the model as similar to the one developed during the Clinton administration as he faced impeachment hearings over his cover-up of an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. During that time, the Clinton administration developed a crisis communications team to respond to reporters’ inquiries about the scandal so that regular press staffers could focus on business as usual.
But, according to former Clinton staffers, their model was very different from the one on display this week with Trump.
Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000, said the separation proved effective, but only because both sides were in constant communication.
“It was actually very hugely coordinated,” he said, recalling that he spent almost as much time meeting with members of the legal team as he did political aides.
“It really was the only way you could effectively communicate, when you knew what everyone was doing,” he said. “There wasn't a communication strategy and a lawyers’ strategy. There was one strategy: a political strategy.”
Michael McCurry, who was press secretary from 1994 to 1998, said that while there were significant disagreements between lawyers and communication and political staffers who came to the table with different priorities and concerns, the group was committed to working as a team.
“I think it was very critical to helping President Clinton get through a difficult period,” he said. “It was a very, very delicate balance” that requires “a lot of goodwill and camaraderie.”
Sanders, meanwhile, was forced to defend her credibility, a week after comedian Michelle Wolf created an uproar at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner with jokes about the press secretary, including one quip that she “burns facts” and “uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.”
“Like maybe she's born with it, maybe it's lies,” Wolf cracked. “It's probably lies.”
Many who saw the routine felt Wolf went too far.
On Thursday, Sanders took issue with a reporter's characterization that she had felt blindsided by Giuliani's interview.
“With all due respect, you actually don't know much about me in terms of what I feel and what I don't,” she said.
Lockhart, meanwhile, said that often the hardest part of the job is “standing up there and looking like you don't know what you're doing, but understanding that just getting through the day and getting through the week is the best thing you can do.”
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