President Trump ‘Performs Best’ with Opposition

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders participated in a GW forum with reporters who cover the administration.

Year of Trump forum
(Left to right) Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Frank Sesno, Margaret Talev and Glenn Thrush participate in a forum held at GW on President Trump’s first year in office. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
October 24, 2017

By Kristen Mitchell

The American people voted President Donald Trump into the Oval Office because they were looking for somebody to shake up the way Washington, D.C., works. The president has done exactly that, said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, at George Washington University.

The first nine months of his presidency, however, have not been without frustrations, she said.

“You have so many things get lost in process, and it’s very hard to push things through regardless of whether or not you have a Republican majority, particularly when it’s a narrow majority, it makes it very tough to I think enforce big and bold change like Donald Trump would like to do,” Ms. Sanders said. “But we are making a lot of progress, maybe not as fast as, certainly I think, the president wants and probably not as much as America wants.”

Ms. Sanders joined White House reporters and expert panelists in Jack Morton Auditorium Monday evening for a forum “Trump's First Year: Will Politics, Policy and the Presidency Ever be the Same?” The event was sponsored by the School of Media and Public Affairs and the White House Correspondents’ Association.

Panelists discussed Mr. Trump’s relationship with the media and what Mr. Trump’s brand of politics means for the future of the Republican Party.

Year of Trump forum

(Left to right) Margaret Talev, Glenn Thrush, April Ryan and Olivier Knox discuss Mr. Trump and his administration’s relationship with the media during a forum at Jack Morton Auditorium. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)

Whether it is labeling outlets he doesn’t like as fake news or calling the media an enemy of the American people, Mr. Trump’s opposition to the media is part of his political brand, said New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush. Mr. Trump needs an opponent, and the media is an easy target, he said.

“This is a politician who does not do particularly well standing alone on center stage,” Mr. Thrush said. “He’s somebody who performs best as a politician and as a political entity with opposition, and in the absence of Hillary Rodham Clinton, or whoever next is going to come up against him, he chooses opponents.”

The administration got off to a tumultuous start with several high-profile turnovers among administration officials and hundreds of unfilled positions across the government. Mr. Trump has also feuded with Republican lawmakers he needs to fulfill his campaign promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and cut taxes.

So far Mr. Trump has been unable to accomplish these goals, despite Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House. John Roberts, chief White House correspondent for Fox News, said this could make it harder for Republicans to be elected or re-elected in 2018.

“They won three elections on that, and they didn’t get it done,” he said of ACA repeal. “When the rubber met the road, they choked.”

How this impacts the future of the Republican Party remains to be seen, Mr. Roberts said. Former administration strategist Steve Bannon has pledged to challenge congressional Republicans from the right, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to focus on candidates he believes win in general elections.

Sarah Binder, a GW political science professor, said the fractures in the Republican Party have been there for some time. Now that Republicans are the majority party responsible for governing, these divisions are more noticeable.

“They really are looking to the president to pave the way forward,” she said. “You don’t have to be a policy wonk to play that role, but you have to chose a position, you have to use your bully pulpit to maintain the party’s position.”

Reporting has shown that Mr. Trump has been unprepared for discussions on policy questions around issues like health care, the budget and entitlement reform, Mr. Thrush said. A “fair amount” of the gridlock in Washington, D.C., rests on the president’s shoulders, he said.

The president is focused on “historic” tax cuts and hopes to pass legislation on this issue by the end of the year, Ms. Sanders said. Congress’ inability to pass legislation has been the biggest challenge of the first nine months of Mr. Trump’s presidency, she said.

“It’s their job to legislate, it’s the president’s job to be the executive, to lay out kind of the priorities, the principles, help drive those, use the bully pulpit, which he has done,” she said. “You’ve got a few people who are holding up a lot of progress.”

Margaret Talev, White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and co-moderator of the event, said the temperature in the White House briefing room has cooled since Ms. Sanders took over the press secretary job from Sean Spicer. Mr. Thrush also said Ms. Sanders and Hope Hicks, communications director, have both played a role in promoting respect in the briefing room.

April Ryan, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks and an SMPA Terker Distinguished Fellow, said Ms. Sanders has a “friendly adversarial relationship” with the press, but makes it known she is unhappy with coverage.

“When Sean left you picked up the mantle, and you charged it. And I understand as a woman in that role, who you work for, you have to come out and show you take no prisoners, you do that,” she said.

Ms. Sanders said the White House press office plans to move toward more transparency in communications with reporters, going on the record more often with information from the administration. This is in part to push back against outlets that rely on anonymous sources.

“It’s hard for us to argue that we want you guys to have on-record sources if we’re not going on the record,” she said.

Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo! News and WHCA president-elect, also participated in the panel, which was co-moderated by SMPA director Frank Sesno.

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