WASHINGTON – It’s easy to see why Sarah Huckabee Sanders wants the TV cameras off during her White House news briefings.
There is, for one, the matter of her boss constantly proclaiming things that range from the inexplicable to the patently wrong. There’s also the metastasizing Russia scandal, which keeps rendering previous Trump White House statements inoperative, as Richard Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used to say.
But above all is a more simple explanation: Sanders has no earthly idea what’s going on in the White House she purports to represent.
And so, at Monday’s off-camera briefing, she stood on the podium, frequently cocking her left eyebrow and raising the left corner of her lips to convey displeasure at the line of questioning. Then, as frequently, she opened her mouth and, with a heavy Arkansas twang, said a lot of nothing.
The Post’s Philip Rucker asked about other Trump campaign meetings with Russians such as the newly discovered one in which Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort reportedly sought the goods on Hillary Clinton. “I am not sure,” she said. “I’ll check and get back to you.”
John Gizzi from Newsmax asked if Trump raised the subject of Russia’s human rights abuses during their meeting. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I’ll have to ask.”
Another reporter asked if Trump trusts Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I haven’t asked.”
Was their meeting recorded?
“I’d have to ask. I’m not sure.”
And on it went. Sanders said she’d need to “have further conversations” before terming Russia an ally or an adversary.
The kerfuffle over the White House briefings is misplaced. The Trump White House move to have fewer briefings and to move them off camera is just a symptom. The real problem is that the people giving the briefings don’t have a clue; they can’t, as Trump put it, “stand at podium with perfect accuracy.”
Or a semblance of dignity. The humiliations that ruined Sean Spicer will do the same to Sanders or whoever fills the role. Trump doesn’t seem to tell his people what he’s doing, if he knows himself. ABC News’s Jon Karl published a list last month of 26 times Sanders and Spicer said they would “get back to you” but never did. There are, surely, many more.
Sanders did everything possible to avoid drawing attention to herself at Monday’s briefing, but to no avail. It wasn’t televised, but reporters were standing in the aisles. She brought out Marc Short, Trump’s legislative director, to deliver a diversionary statement about Democrats’ “needless obstruction” of Trump’s nominees. But the distraction failed when half a dozen reporters used the opportunity to quiz Short about the floundering effort in the Senate to pass Trumpcare.
Sanders stepped onto the podium and gave her colleague the hook. She read a six-minute statement about Trump’s “powerful and historic speech” in Poland and how he “successfully achieved his objectives” in Germany, then gave reporters exactly 15 minutes to question her before walking out of the room.
She called first on her “fellow Arkansan” Frank Lockwood from the Democrat-Gazette. But this was no safe harbor: He asked about Trump’s tweet targeting Chelsea Clinton. “At what point is the president going to put Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Bill Clinton in the rear-view mirror?” he asked. “He won the election.”
Sanders attempted to argue that the Clinton tweet was justified by an “outrageous attack against a White House senior adviser” – the derision set off by Ivanka Trump taking her father’s chair at the G-20 summit.
Then came a barrage of questions about Donald Jr.’s newly reported meeting with the Russians, which negated, as CBS’s Major Garrett noted, the White House’s “long history of blanket denials” that there had been campaign contacts with the Russians.
“There was simply no collusion,” she said, eyebrow cocked and lip corner raised.
“That’s a different question,” Garrett pointed out.
Sanders repeated that there wasn’t any collusion.
It didn’t go much better with questions about Trump’s weekend tweet touting a new “cyber security unit” with Russia and then, 12 hours later, another tweet disavowing the project. “I am not sure there were specific details discussed,” Sanders said.
In fairness to Sanders, there are no good answers to these questions. Trump, with his reckless tweets and nonsense claims, leaves his mouthpieces in an impossible position. No less an authority than former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said after Trump’s vulgar tweet about Mika Brzezinski that “he makes my daughter’s job very difficult.”
But that’s no excuse. Sanders has agreed to interpret the nonsensical and to rationalize the indefensible. Like Spicer, she will fail.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.