Why you should care
Because the role as we knew it no longer exists.
The White House press secretary, as we’ve known the role previously performed by such luminaries as George Stephanopoulos, Dana Perino and C.J. Cregg, is no more. The famous ritual of standing behind a podium with the White House seal and deflecting the questions of reporters with varying levels of hair product was always ill-suited for the age of Twitter and is most certainly out the window in the age of Trump.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Thursday that she was leaving the post, on the 94th day since her last televised briefing. She would pop up in TV interviews and could be responsive on an individual basis, but mostly she was a force behind the scenes. Donald Trump is often said to be his own political strategist and communications director. He is also his own press secretary, so he does not need another.
He’ll get one — whether it’s Stephanie Grisham, the spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump, Sanders’ deputy Hogan Gidley or someone else — but the person will be a disposable accessory, their words easily discounted or reversed.
More damaging to Sanders was the fact that her words didn’t really matter.
Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, debuted with an obvious lie about the size of the president’s inauguration crowd. Sanders was flatly shown to be lying in Robert Mueller’s report for her claim that “countless members of the FBI” had said they had no confidence in Director James Comey before Trump fired him. Those incidents were damaging to Spicer’s and Sanders’ credibility with the press, but reporters overestimated how much they mattered to the public.
While Spicer was lampooned on Saturday Night Live and departed basically as a pariah, Sanders became a sympathetic figure to many on the right — particularly when attacked by comedian Michelle Wolf or denied service at a restaurant — to the point where Trump suggested she should run for governor of Arkansas, like her father. She could win if she does.
More damaging to Sanders, and the reason why Trump doesn’t need a successor, was the fact that her words didn’t really matter. Trump, who plays commander in chief like a meandering jazz artist, shifts not only his acts but also the rationale behind them in a flash. He is by far the most effective messenger for himself, a force of nature with his Twitter finger.
Any attempt at polish or spin comes off as insincere. And Trump will undermine it anyway, perhaps within minutes. As he proved in 2016, it’s to Trump’s political benefit to be omnipresent in our lives. That means him on camera, not a flunky.
And while there can be some value from an accountability standpoint to have a member of the administration fielding reporters’ questions for an hour a day, Trump has proved to be an exceedingly accessible president. He rarely holds formal news conferences but frequently takes press questions on the fly — far more than Barack Obama did. Add in the frequent tweets, and there’s little on which we don’t know Trump’s position or thoughts. (Though we are still awaiting his opinion on the indignity of America losing the NBA Finals to Canada.)
So why bother with a press secretary? Sure, there’s a need to have a White House press staff to handle reporters’ needs. But no messenger can channel the Donald the way he can.
The question is whether the next president, whenever she or he is installed, will have much use for a press secretary either. It’s not hard to imagine a return to the old ways of doing things at the podium. But it is hard to imagine it being effective.
Read more: Trump-era reporters, stop treating every day like it’s Watergate.