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Huckabee's daughter thrives in the spotlight; Sanders praised in White House role

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Photographs by Frank E. Lockwood

Sarah Huckabee Sanders sits in her office in the West Wing of the White House.

WASHINGTON -- Former Gov. Mike Huckabee used to be the star of his family. But these days, it's his daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is capturing most of the headlines.

As principal deputy White House press secretary, Sanders speaks for President Donald Trump. She works near the Oval Office. She flies on Air Force One. She is quoted in newspapers around the world.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and his daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the hall outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last ...

Sanders, 34, is stationed in the West Wing, just down the hallway from the president. She moved into her office on Jan. 20, shortly after the end of Trump's inaugural address.

Speaking on behalf of the president "is a great honor and a great responsibility," she said during a White House interview. "You want to make sure that you're prepared and equipped to drive his message as best you can."

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Facing the cameras can be intimidating. It helps, she said, that she grew up "in a very press-dominated environment. I've been around members of the media for most of my life."

The Little Rock native learned to communicate, in part, by listening to her father. "I lived with the king of sound bites," she said.

That was back before social media got so big.

These days, there's also Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter to worry about.

When the president unleashes a predawn tweet, Sanders must be ready to go on TV and defend the latest 140-character pronouncement.

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Fortunately, she has an early warning system.

"I set up alerts so I see it come through," she said. "Sometimes we may know ahead of time. Sometimes we don't."

The boss occasionally tunes in to watch her work.

The feedback, thus far, has been positive, she said.

"I haven't been called in to be yelled at, so that's always a plus," she said. "He's been very supportive and I think grateful for the people that have gone out and helped deliver and drive his message and help promote his agenda, both in the White House and in the campaign."

Earlier this month, Sanders was defending the president's claims, thus far unsubstantiated, that President Barack Obama had tapped Trump's phones during the presidential campaign.

The day after Trump's news-making tweet, Sanders appeared on one of the Sunday morning talk shows, ABC's This Week, to discuss the accusation, enduring a grilling from co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

That Monday, Sanders was still explaining Trump's accusation, both on ABC's Good Morning America and on NBC's Today show.

The next morning, Sanders' words appeared in newspapers around the world, including Italy's Corriere della Sera, Mexico's Excelsior and Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The Washington Post referred to her four times. The New York Times mentioned her twice.

During the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview, she said she is glad that the House and Senate intelligence committees are delving into the topic.

Over the past year, Sanders has been a reliable ally to Trump, constantly defending the New York businessman on the airwaves and in print.

And Trump has noticed her loyalty.

"I think he knows that I came in as a believer in what he was doing and in his message, not as somebody who was ... just looking for a ride to the White House," she said.

In an interview, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Sanders has earned Trump's trust and her colleagues' respect.

"She's a phenomenal asset to our communications team and to the president. She's a very trusted professional that we rely on on a daily basis as one of the key leaders in our operation," he said.

Spicer is the one who hired Sanders, and he said he's glad that she joined the team.

"When I took the job, one of the main pieces of advice that I got from the former press secretaries was, 'Pick a strong principal deputy,' and that was sage advice," he said. "She has proven that that's important."

Sanders' job isn't easy, he said. "She's got to be knowledgeable on all the issues of the day, very strategic, affable, respectful and kind, and she excels at every one of those attributes," he said.

The relationship between Trump and the media isn't generally described as respectful, let alone kind.

The editorial boards at the nation's largest newspapers soundly rejected his candidacy, siding with his challengers during the Republican primaries and with Democrat Hillary Clinton in the fall.

Television coverage was abundant but often hostile.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly targeted the mainstream media, calling them "very dishonest" and "out of control."

Since taking office, he's doubled down, referring to major news outlets as "the enemy of the American people."

Sanders said she understands her boss's frustration.

She sees unflattering stories, packed with quotes from unnamed sources, and they're often flat-out wrong, she said.

Some of them describe White House backbiting and infighting, reports that she dismisses.

"We spend a lot of our day putting out fires and fake stories about palace intrigue, things that just aren't true," she said.

Critics say Trump and his allies are the ones spreading falsehoods, such as exaggerating the size of the Inauguration Day crowds and alleging that foreigners illegally cast millions of ballots.

Journalists say it's tough to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Ron Fournier, a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press, said good spokesmen focus on "serving the president and serving the public."

It's difficult to strike that balance, he said, especially when the boss is a "strong media-focused" leader and a regular television viewer.

"When you go on TV or go to a briefing, you basically just speak to the president, make sure you're saying what makes him happy. It strikes me that's what the Trump administration team does right now," he said.

After interacting with the press on a daily basis for the past two months, Sanders said she's concerned about the quality of reporting she sometimes encounters.

Too often, the public is misinformed, Sanders said. She blames the press, not the president.

"I think, frankly, that fake news is the enemy of our democracy. I mean, it's not good to have people believe things that simply aren't true. And when we can't trust the media to report accurately, I think that's a big problem," she said. "So often reporters come to the story or any story about President Trump looking for the negative."

"Everybody's looking for the gotcha moment. Nobody's just looking to report news anymore," she added.

While Trump sometimes berates reporters, Sanders tries to get along with them.

"I have a pretty respectful relationship with a majority of the members of the press. I try to be polite, even when we disagree. I think that may be some of the Southern upbringing for me," she said. "I think that you can disagree without being angry about it."

Sanders' recent road to the White House began in Hope, Ark., her father's hometown and the place where he launched his 2016 presidential campaign. The journey seemed to end outside Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 1, after her father finished ninth in the Iowa caucus.

But later that month, she signed up with the Trump campaign.

She stuck with the candidate from Super Tuesday until Election Day, supporting him unwaveringly.

Now she has a national stage.

Huckabee monitors his daughter's media appearances and offers glowing reviews.

"I'm very proud, but not at all surprised that Sarah is doing well in her job and that the President loves and trusts her," the ex-governor said via email.

Sanders is doing difficult work, he said.

"Under the best of circumstances, that is a tough position, but in this atmosphere of animosity from the press towards this President, it makes it especially challenging, but she has risen to the task," he said.

Huckabee, a longtime Fox News contributor, said the media deserve low marks thus far.

News outlets "hate Trump even more than they loved Obama, and they LOVED Obama," he wrote.

As a presidential spokesman, Sanders' task is daunting, he said.

Fielding questions on live television is like "being on a high wire without a net below you. One misstep could spell disaster for your boss and your own career," he wrote. "Sarah has grown up understanding that and is far better prepared than most people to survive."

At the White House, Sanders occupies highly coveted real estate.

Her window is near the entranceway that foreign dignitaries use; she watches as heads of state walk by.

When visitors field questions from television news crews, she can witness it electronically or by simply glancing outside.

Her office has few adornments. Pictures of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia hang on the wall, a vestige, she said, of the Obama team. There's a beaten-up brown refrigerator, with a "Teach Tolerance" sticker plastered on the side. A houseplant of some kind, abandoned by the previous administration, is thriving near her desk. A television, tuned to a 24-hour news channel, provides the background chatter.

There aren't any souvenirs displayed, any big photographs of the first family; there's just a bulletin board covered with her children's art. A small King James Bible, with the words of Jesus in red, sits on a shelf nearby.

A Dell laptop computer is perched atop her desk; she wasn't able to get an Apple, she said.

The mother of three said her new job is rewarding but time-consuming. She arrives before sunrise and heads home after dark. She's always on call.

"The hardest part for me is not being able to be with my family as much as I'd like to," she said.

The work is demanding, deputy communications director Jessica Ditto acknowledges.

"It is certainly not an easy job to be at the front lines of the media scrutiny on a day-in and day-out basis, especially when the news cycle is 24-7," she said.

But Sanders has proved to be an effective communicator and a good friend, Ditto said.

"Even when faced with the toughest questions, Sarah always answers with grace," she said.

A Section on 03/20/2017

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