Now starring in the West Wing: Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Michael Gynbaum
White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks at the press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 31, 2017.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

Pickle did not go as planned.

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the newly minted White House press secretary, began her first official briefing by reading a child's letter to President Trump — "Everybody calls me Pickle, I'm 9 years old, and you're my favorite president" — the backlash was swift.

Reporters called it a transparent attempt to distract from numerous scandals roiling the White House. Theories surfaced that Mr. Trump, who once impersonated his own spokesman, had written the missive himself. (He didn't.)

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"I didn't know it was going to be such a controversy," Ms. Sanders said during an interview last week in her spartan West Wing office. "I was like, what has happened in America when a kid writes a very innocent, nice letter and it turns into, like, handwriting specialists and psychologists?"

Absurd as it was, the Pickle affair offered a low-stakes microcosm of the deep distrust that has developed between the Trump administration and the journalists whose work the president derides as "fake news." And it underscored the why-would-you-want-this nature of Ms. Sanders's new job: defending a president who is at war with the news media and an administration that has repeatedly been denounced for playing loose with facts.

Now Ms. Sanders, who inherited her position when her celebrity predecessor Sean Spicer quit, is stepping into the glare, trying to manage coverage of a tumultuous White House while mollifying a boss who believes he is his own best spokesman.

"It's a challenging position under any president, much more so under President Trump," said Scott McClellan, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush. "She can help the president advance his agenda and broaden his appeal beyond his base, if — and it's a big 'if' — he will avoid undermining her."

In a White House of outsize characters, Ms. Sanders, 34, has flown under the radar — Mr. Trump, for all his social media logorrhea, has never posted on Twitter about her by name. If Mr. Spicer's gaffe-prone briefings mutated into an unhelpful spectacle, Ms. Sanders's sessions tend to be flat and uneventful, not necessarily a bad thing for a stormy administration.

An evangelical who reads from a book of Christian devotionals before every briefing — and the daughter of the pastor-turned-presidential-candidate Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas — Ms. Sanders is an unlikely public face for Mr. Trump, a twice-divorced connoisseur of grievance.

"I certainly didn't approve of a couple of the comments," Ms. Sanders said of her time on Mr. Trump's campaign, where she served as an adviser and on-air surrogate. "But at the same time, we were looking for a commander in chief, not a pastor."

"Oftentimes, people want to make politicians perfect," she added. "And that's one of the actual beauties of Christianity, is understanding that no one is."

She is the first mother to serve as press secretary, and among the youngest to occupy the role. At the lectern, she is folksy, but nimble: She recently deflected questions about "chaos" in the White House by inviting reporters to visit the three preschoolers in her living room. There were laughs, even as Ms. Sanders clearly sidestepped the subject.

She is also unafraid to call out reporters and news coverage that she deems unfair. Asked in the interview if the establishment media is biased against Mr. Trump, she replied, "Absolutely."

"I've never seen the level of hostility that this press corps has to the president," she said.

Behind the scenes, reporters who cover the West Wing say Ms. Sanders can be friendly and warm — the good cop to Mr. Spicer's barking sergeant. Last week, several dozen journalists and White House aides, including Kellyanne Conway, toasted Ms. Sanders's promotion at an all-female "women of the White House" happy hour at a Washington hotel bar.

But like Mr. Spicer, Ms. Sanders has drawn criticism for some dubious assertions. Confronted with Mr. Trump's call for law enforcement agents to rough up gang suspects, she said that the president "was making a joke." While denouncing CNN, she urged Americans to watch a video critical of the network by a right-wing activist, James O'Keefe, "whether it's accurate or not."

When a reporter asked if Mr. Trump had lied about a laudatory phone call from the Boy Scouts, Ms. Sanders shot back: "That's a pretty bold accusation." She also conceded that the call had not happened.

The president's volatility has caught her off guard. In May, Ms. Sanders, then deputy press secretary, told reporters that Mr. Trump had not made up his mind to fire his F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, until after he received a recommendation from the Justice Department. The next day, Mr. Trump said the opposite.

"Her predecessor to a large degree was willingly sacrificing his credibility, and he was put in a bad position," Mr. McClellan said. "The challenge will be not to sacrifice the strength that she brings."

He added, "I'm thankful my president didn't have a Twitter account."

Ms. Sanders was enjoying a relatively quiet Twitter day during the interview, her last meeting before the West Wing closed temporarily for renovation. She said she was looking forward to some downtime with her husband and their three children, whose artwork hangs above her desk.

Asked about Mr. Trump's unpredictability, Ms. Sanders stayed on message. "We have no two days that are alike, which I love," she said. (Mike Huckabee was more candid on a radio show in June, saying, "He makes my daughter's job very difficult with tweets like that.")

Steeped in politics since grade school, Ms. Sanders remembers poring over poll results with the consultant Dick Morris at the family's kitchen table. "Looking back, that was probably not the most normal thing in the world," she recalled.

At 25, Ms. Sanders helped her father win an upset victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus. In 2016, she managed his presidential bid until he dropped out; "that didn't go so well," she said, wryly.

She wakes up at 5 a.m. to spend time with her children and talk with her father, who texts her feedback after briefings. "She's not easily rattled," Mr. Huckabee said of his daughter's calm demeanor at the lectern. "She's not going to throw punches just because she can."

Not every reporter is pleased with her approach. "I don't want to hear anymore about the chaos in her home," said Brian Karem, a White House correspondent for the Sentinel newspapers in Maryland who has clashed with Ms. Sanders. "If she tells me one more story about how three preschoolers can be more chaotic than a hundred and some odd reporters in the White House press office, I'll even volunteer to babysit."

Dana Perino, Mr. Bush's fourth press secretary, said such criticism missed the mark. "The reporters will roll their eyes," she said. "But Sarah isn't doing that for the press — she's doing it for their supporters and their base. The more they make fun of it, the more she'll do it."

Ms. Sanders said that talking about family came naturally — "That's just kind of who I am" — and she scolded some journalists for seeking "gotcha" moments.

"We may from the outside seem more adversarial" than past administrations, Ms. Sanders said, "but you should see the hundred stories I deal with before going out there. Some of the most outrageous claims with no facts, no sourcing. It's like, 'an unnamed source close to the White House.' I'm like: 'What does that mean? The guy that works at the coffee shop across the street?' You have to give me more than that."

White House advisers say that Ms. Sanders has grown closer with Mr. Trump, who approves of her even-keeled briefings.

Still, the president's affections are fickle, and in the interview, Ms. Sanders heaped praise on Mr. Trump, calling him "a great guy" and "a fighter." Twice, she said "I love the president," echoing a favorite phrase of Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as communications director.

Mr. Huckabee, asked if he had qualms about his daughter's representing Mr. Trump, said that he was proud.

"I know she's doing everything she can to be straightforward and honest," Mr. Huckabee said. "I know that she is going to be loyal to a fault."