Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, has become the latest official to leave Donald Trump’s volatile administration, but in an emotional farewell she insisted: “I love the president.” Sanders, a bitterly divisive figure who has not held a press briefing for a record 94 days, will return to her home state of Arkansas, it was announced on Thursday, though her exact plans remain unclear.
Trump and Sanders expressed mutual admiration that suggested the parting was amicable. The president first announced her departure via Twitter then spoke of her in glowing terms at an unrelated event at the White House. He described Sanders as “a magnificent person” and who has done “an incredible job”.
Sanders promised that she would continue to be “one of the most outspoken and loyal supporters of the president and his agenda” – raising the prospect that she could follow her predecessor, Sean Spicer, into becoming a political pundit on channels such as Fox News. “I know he’s going to have an incredible six more years,” she added.
Sanders will not be missed by Trump’s critics. Matthew Miller, a former justice department spokesperson, tweeted: “Good riddance. She had the most important spokesperson job in the world and used it to lie repeatedly to the the American people. I hope shame and stigma follow her the rest of life.”
Sanders, daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, took over from Spicer in July 2017. She was the third woman to hold the position. She was one of the closest and most trusted White House aides and one of the few remaining who worked on his campaign. Sanders provided stability after Spicer’s series of wayward gaffes and, unlike other Trump officials, stayed in his good graces with her unswerving, often ostentatious shows of loyalty. In January she told the Christian TV network CBN that “God wanted Donald Trump to become president”.
Sanders amplified Trump’s attacks on the media, sometimes clashing with CNN correspondent Jim Acosta in the briefing room, and notoriously made false claims on behalf of the president, deepening questions about the administration’s credibility. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report revealed that Sanders admitted to investigators that she had made an unfounded claim that “countless” FBI agents had got in touch to express support for Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey in May 2017. Sanders later claimed her comments were “a slip of the tongue” and made in “the heat of the moment”.
It was also on her watch that the daily press briefing, a staple of past administrations, became irregular and all but petered out. There has been no briefing for the past three months, effectively replaced by impromptu gatherings with reporters in the White House driveway, and by Trump’s own question-and-answer sessions on the south lawn.
Sanders becomes the latest in a long list of White House departures; Trump has presided over a record turnover of staff. He has not yet announced a successor.
At the press conference on Thursday, Trump summoned Sanders to join him at podium. The 36-year-old beamed as the president said: “She’s going to be leaving the service of her country and she’s going to be going – I guess you could say private sector… She comes from a great state, Arkansas, that was a state that I won by a lot, so I like it.”
The president added: “If we can get her to run for the governor of Arkansas, I think she’ll do very well. I’m trying to get her to do that… She’s a very special person, a very, very fine woman, she has been so great, she has such heart, she’s strong but with great, great heart, and I want to thank you for an outstanding job.”
Trump kissed Sanders on the head amid applause. She took the podium, visibly resisting tears, and said: “This has been the honour of a lifetime, the opportunity of a lifetime.
She said she had “loved every minute, even in the hard minutes, I’ve loved it.
“I love the president. I love the team that I’ve had the opportunity to work for. The president is surrounded by some of the most incredible and most talented people you could ever imagine and it’s truly the most special experience. The only one I can think of that might top it just a little bit is the fact that I’m a mom. I have three amazing kids and I’m going to spend a little more time with them.”