Little Rock (Arkansas): It has been less than six months since Sarah Huckabee Sanders left Washington after a tumultuous tenure as President Donald Trump’s press secretary who was mocked so mercilessly at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that other members of the Trump administration walked out.
But in the deep-red state of Arkansas, which Trump won in 2016 by nearly 27 points, Sanders has returned home a bona fide star eager to play a new role in a post-Trump Republican Party crafted in her former boss’ image.
“There are two types of people who run for office,” Sanders said over breakfast tacos at a diner in downtown Little Rock last week. “People that are called and people that just want to be a senator or governor. I feel like I’ve been called.”
She did not make it clear who did the calling — potential voters or even a higher power. As the daughter of Mike Huckabee, who served as governor from 1996 to 2007 and twice ran for president, she is seen as political royalty in Arkansas, and Trump himself urged her to run for governor when she left the West Wing.
That job will open in 2023, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s term is up, and Sanders is giving every indication that she plans to run.
“It’s the role I’ve been pushed into,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to do that if I wasn’t the right person to fit what the state needed at that time.”
While Sanders is not ready to officially announce anything yet, she is very clearly thinking about it. “Would you vote for me if you lived in Arkansas?” Sanders puckishly asked a reporter. She did not wait for an answer. “I’ll put you down as a yes.”
In the 23 months that Sanders served as Trump’s chief spokeswoman, her battles with the White House press corps were epic.
She presided over punishing Jim Acosta of CNN by suspending his White House access. She phased out the daily press briefings that in recent history have been the main way presidents answer to the public. Her legacy would be “defending the indefensible and not being truthful with the American people,” David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama and a CNN contributor, once said.
But those clashes have now become the icebreaker in the speech she gives to Arkansas audiences.
“I’m just excited to have people clap when I come up to a podium,” she said at a Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner in Hot Springs one night last week. “It’s very different from what I’m used to. All I can say is thank God I’m back in Arkansas.”
Sanders’ relationship with reporters reached a nadir in April after it was revealed that she had admitted under oath to investigators working for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, that her claim at a press briefing that “countless members of the FBI” told her they had lost confidence in the bureau’s director, James B. Comey, was a “slip of the tongue” that was not based on any facts.
In Hot Springs, the crowd was hardly dwelling on the incident.
“The main thing I like about her is her honesty,” said Carla Shelton, a small-business owner who brought her daughter to hear Sanders speak. “She got a bad rap because people are offended that she does tell the truth. I’m 100% behind her.”
Sanders arrived at the dinner bearing a “Make America Great Again” cap signed by Vice President Mike Pence, which was auctioned off for $750. She warned of the “chaos” that would ensue if Democrats were allowed to “take guns out of our homes” and force “taxpayer-funded abortion on demand, anytime.”
The crowd swarmed her. Her husband, Brian Sanders, drove her home.
Many of Sanders’ former White House colleagues have left Trump’s orbit damaged if not disgraced. But Sanders appears to be living her best life back home.
After two years in a rented house in Arlington, Virginia, the Sanders family bought a sprawling $600,000 home in Pleasant Valley, Little Rock’s wealthiest neighborhood. She has just finished building an in-house television studio for her appearances on Fox News, where she is a paid contributor, and works at home when she is not touring the country giving paid speeches and doing some corporate consulting. Her office is decorated with political paraphernalia, including a Woman of the Year award from Virginia Women for Trump and a signed electric guitar from Huckabee, which credits her with “always rocking for her Daddy!”
Her three children dote on a new puppy named Traveler Hotdog Sanders.
“Life is easier now,” Sanders is happy to acknowledge.
The Secret Service detail she was assigned no longer trails her, a fact she described as “liberating.” And the unpleasant incidents she encountered when she was working at the White House — getting kicked out of a restaurant in Virginia when its owner refused to serve her or having a fellow mother at her children’s school spit on her car — are just memories now.
“I was attacked for everything, not just my performance,” she said of her time in Washington. “I was called a fat soccer mom, my kids were threatened, my life was threatened. It was a lot. I hate harping on it, but to be in the position I’m in and to have Secret Service, that’s not normal.”
Sanders paused. “I don’t like being called a liar,” she said. “The other stuff bothered me far less.”
Brian Sanders, a Republican consultant, credits his wife’s thick skin to her upbringing in politics. With an ambitious father who followed in Bill Clinton’s footsteps as a small-state governor from Arkansas who turned the job into a national platform, she has always been in some spotlight. After all, Sarah Huckabee Sanders grew up in Chelsea Clinton’s old bedroom in the governor’s mansion.
If Sarah Sanders is having an easier time, her return home has upset some long-set political plans of her fellow Arkansas Republicans. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin has long been planning a run for governor. And Leslie Rutledge, the attorney general, is also expected to be a contender.
Brian Sanders was forthright about their timeline and their pitch.
“You have to make a decision by Labor Day of 2021,” he said. “She has a unique coalition. It’s not just Trump voters. It’s evangelicals because of her dad. It’s women.”
Sarah Sanders projected confidence, too. Is there a non-Trump lane that wins in Arkansas? “Not that wins in a Republican primary,” she said. Is there anyone who can claim that mantle better than her? “I don’t think you can.”
Sanders plans to help with campaign events for Trump through next year. But she said the results of the 2020 election would not have much bearing on her own political future. “If he wins, there’s a solid base and people will come in and be helpful,” she says. “If he loses, people will be angry and they will want to rally around Trump people.”
For now, nearly three years before Arkansas selects a new governor, she is doing everything she can to make her presence known.
Last Tuesday, she was up at 6 a.m., getting her hair and makeup done in her kitchen before a hit on Fox. While her husband prepared waffles with peanut butter for the children’s breakfast, she reviewed notes on a printout.
She said she had not been glued to the impeachment coverage. “Sarah isn’t a news junkie,” Brian Sanders said. “She never has been. I read it all.”
Dressed in a white dress with puffy sleeves, Sarah Sanders padded up to her studio a few minutes ahead of her hit time. She inspected herself in the monitor, regretting her outfit choice.
“I look like a Pilgrim prepping for Thanksgiving,” she murmured to herself, a rare moment when she does not seem completely self-assured. “These sleeves are probably not my best.”
It was Day 3 of impeachment hearings, and Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman was scheduled to testify. Should Trump be tweeting about the witnesses during the hearings?
Sanders would not answer the question on the record, or say anything disparaging about her former boss. “I loved being around the president,” she said. “It’s just fun to be around him.”
At 7:30 am Eastern time, she was beamed back into Trump’s consciousness, with a message from “real America.”
“At the end of the day, none of this matters,” Sanders said on “Fox & Friends.” “It’s a huge waste of time.”
Annie Karni c.2019 The New York Times Company