To be VP for Trump, loyalty and TV presence count. Sarah Huckabee Sanders fits the bill (2024)

Sarah D. WireUSA TODAY

To be VP for Trump, loyalty and TV presence count. Sarah Huckabee Sanders fits the bill (1)

To be VP for Trump, loyalty and TV presence count. Sarah Huckabee Sanders fits the bill (2)

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - As former President Donald Trump weighs his pick for vice president, one of his most loyal former aides waits in the wings.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, now serving a four-year term as governor of Arkansas, isn't at the top of any of the lists of potential running mates floating around, but only Trump ultimately knows who he will choose – and he's long valued reliability above all else.

Few people have been as dedicated to Trump as the woman who defended him during the 2016 campaign and on television while he was president. She made her reputation deflecting questions and criticism, and parrying queries from the White House press corps for more than two years in briefings on contentious topics that ranged from banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries to separating children and parents at the Southern border and whether the campaign knew Russia was interfering in the 2016 election.

Sanders, 41, consistently tells reporters that she's happy in her current job, and she has the prospect of a second term before her. But those who know her well say they expect she would return to Washington if Trump asked. Accepting the running mate role means that win or lose she'd also be catapulting herself from governor of a small ruby-red state to an instant frontrunner for the 2028 Republican presidential nomination.

"I've got to believe that if he asked her, she would think about it long and hard, but I can't imagine that if she felt like she could serve the country... that she would not step up into that role," former Trump communications director Michael Dubke, who had a White House office next to Sanders for several months in 2017, told USA TODAY.

Trump has long signaled that he is looking for a vice presidential pick who is trustworthy, loyal and would defend him on cable news, just like so many other people who he's hired for his political campaigns, first-term administration and legal teams. He is expected to announce his vice-presidential pick by the Republican National Convention, which starts July 15 in Milwaukee.

Inside Trump’s VP selection process: Formal vetting takes backseat to informal lobbying

Chip Saltsman, who worked with Sanders on her famous father's 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns, said he can't imagine a better choice. Sanders puts family at the center of her life, he said, and the political candidates she's previously worked for are quickly added to that protective circle.

"She clearly knows the universe. She knows the boss. I think she would be incredible," he said.

Well known as a witty, bright and capable campaign operative who made seismic shifts in Arkansas politics – she is her home state's first female chief executive – Sanders became an unflappable advocate of Trump and his policies as the face of the Republican administration. Her plainspoken delivery and references to her southern and religious background served as a gateway into swaths of America for the East Coast real estate mogul.

Politics in her blood

Sanders' career has paralleled Arkansas' shift from one of the last Democratic strongholds in the South to a place where Republicans were elected to hold every major lever of political power in the state.

She stuffed envelopes as a 9-year-old during her father's first foray into politics, an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid by Mike Huckabee against Democratic institution Sen. Dale Bumpers in 1992. Bill Clinton's election from Arkansas governor to the White House that same year meant his former lieutenant governor Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat, got the promotion to lead the state. Mike Huckabee leveraged his name recognition from the Senate race to win the lieutenant governor slot in 1993, narrowly edging out his Democratic opponent.

Fast forward three years: A federal jury in 1996 convicted Tucker of a felony related to the Whitewater scandal that embroiled Clinton's first presidential term and the Democratic governor had to resign under state law. That allowed the Huckabees to move into the governor's mansion in Little Rock, and where Sarah Huckabee Sanders would attend historic Central High School.

Sanders next went to her parent's alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, graduating with dual degrees in politics and communications. She won elections to be her freshman and sophom*ore class president and in her senior year as president of the student senate.

Professor Emeritus Hal Bass, who taught her American presidency course and other classes, said Sanders was a driven, organized student who got things done. It was clear politics would play a major role in her life.

"I certainly thought that if she didn't run for office herself, she would be involved in campaigns for other people running for office. It was always kind of an interest and a passion," Bass told USA TODAY.

After graduating, Sanders worked briefly for the Department of Education during then-President George W. Bush's administration before joining her father's burgeoning 2008 campaign for president. In landing the job, Mike Huckabee asked Saltsman to interview his daughter. The campaign veteran quizzed her on whether she was there to actually work.

"My conversation with her at that point was, I just need to know are you going to be the candidate's daughter? Are you going to be my field director?" Saltsman recalled. "If we make a hard decision in there, are you going to go run to your dad and complain about it? And she never did. And you know, we didn't always agree on everything, but she was unbelievable."

Sanders served as national political director, and she embedded with a team of staffers in Iowa in the months ahead of the Iowa Caucuses. "She wanted to be right with the volunteers. She wanted to be helping with events. She wanted to be the door knocker," Saltsman said. "She just wanted to be in the middle of it all, and that was from day one."

Huckabee won the Iowa Caucus, and several Super Tuesday states in 2008. But Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain would go on to win the party's presidential nomination that year. Sanders shifted over to help conservatives through her father's political action committee, which raises money for candidates.

As a for-hire political operative, Sanders helped pull off an unexpected takeover by flipping both of the U.S. Senate seats in Arkansas from Democrats to Republicans for the first time since the 1870s: In her first job as campaign manager, she helped Sen. John Boozman unseat Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 and then worked as a senior advisor on Sen. Tom Cotton's 2014 campaign to topple Sen. Mark Pryor.

Mike Huckabee made another run for president in 2016 with his daughter as campaign manager. But his White House bid didn't last long, and Trump's team took up her father's suggestion to hire Sanders. Trump was talking about a lot of the same economic populism issues that Huckabee cared about, but was delivering it in a very different way, Saltsman said.

"I don't think that was a big jump for Sarah to go help Donald Trump. She was always a good person on TV. She was a good communicator," Saltsman said. "When she got on TV, she was a star. She was as very natural as her dad, smart as a whip, able to able to take different questions."

Speaking for the Trump administration

That early entrance into the Trump campaign gave her a depth of understanding about what Trump wanted and thought that few could match, Dubke said. It also put her front and center as one of the Republican 2016 presidential candidate's chief defenders, a role that continued into his White House.

Serving as deputy press secretary, Sanders frequently conducted the daily briefings with reporters after repeated missteps by her boss, Sean Spicer. By mid-2017, she'd landed the top presidential spokesperson job, where her staunch Trump defenses, even when caught in lies, led to a fractious relationship with the White House press corps and where the pace of news, push back and questioning from journalists was relentless. She frequently responded with jokes or a story about her children. Under more intense grilling, she'd default to calling a question inappropriate or say she hadn't yet spoken with the president and then move on.

“She always kept her cool. I don’t know that I ever saw her lose her temper or her composure,” said Steven Groves, a former Sanders colleague who served as a White House deputy press secretary.

Still, reporters grew frustrated with Sanders over the lack of briefings and their short length. They openly questioned her credibility when she repeated easily disprovable statements or information. In a June 2018 briefing, where reporters and Sanders argued over immigration issues, she insulted the intelligence of one reporter, prompting a dramatic outburst from another. That December, when Sanders ended the first briefing she'd held in weeks after only a few minutes, reporters could be heard yelling after her, "This is a 10-minute briefing, Sarah!" and "Do your job, Sarah!" At least one reporter openly called for her to be fired when then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller's final report in May 2019 stated that she had lied to the press in the briefing room.

Trump also often preferred to act as his own press secretary, spending long amounts of time answering reporter questions before boarding Marine One and sending tweets making policy or firing and hiring decisions at all hours of the day. Former Trump White House officials say it was an intentional plan to get the administration's message out.

"Sarah saw the futility of the White House press briefings. The juice was almost never worth the squeeze,” Groves said in arguing that the White House press corps had narratives that they were sticking to regardless of what was said during the briefings.

'It was clear she had national aspirations'

Sanders decision to step down in June 2019 to move back to Arkansas was seen by many as declaration of her intent to run for governor three years later. Trump openly encouraged her to run.

On the campaign trail, Sanders proudly nationalized her run for state office. In January 2021, she launched her bid by vowing to defend Arkansas from the “radical left now in control of Washington.”The closing image of her first campaign ad showed her walking down a hallway with Trump. She won in November 2022 with nearly 63% of votes, claiming the office her father once held.

University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry, the founding director of the nationally-recognized Arkansas Poll, said Sanders' run for governor felt inevitable. When she entered the race, longtime Arkansas politicians abandoned the governor's race and ran for other offices.

The general opinion was "that she was an unstoppable force and that returning to Arkansas was a means to an end, Parry said. "It was clear she had national aspirations."

Sanders' campaign communications usually "offered a nod to her Arkansas roots, and then moved swiftlyinto a series of highly nationalized talking points," Parry said.

Along with those talking points, Sanders kept the captious relationship with the press when she came home. She also brought along several members of Trump's White House communications office.

Local reporters in Arkansas grumble in private that Sanders answers few questions at the sprinkling of press conferences she holds in place of the rambling, free-flowing press events offered regularly by her predecessor governors, Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, and Mike Beebe, a Democrat.

Politicians and politicos say her staff closely regulates access to her, granting few one-on-one press interviews and moving as a protective bubble around her at public events. At humanizing events like her Capitol for the Day program, which brings the governor and her cabinet to small towns to hear and address local concerns, reporters largely aren't allowed to view and document her interactions with regular Arkansans.

But Republican political consultant, and longtime Sanders friend, Jon Gilmore, said that description of the governor doesn't mesh with his experience.

"I don't think she's ever met a stranger," Gilmore said. "I don't see that inaccessibility."

It's at times resulted in a stilted image of the governor that clashes with the personable, snarky, but warm person that those who know her describe.

Standing in a grocery store parking lot a few blocks from the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Al Myles, 62, of Jacksonville, Ark., said it doesn't feel like Sanders represents the whole state and that he thinks becoming Trump's vice president was probably her "end game" all along.

"What I'd like to see her do is be more open and have more opportunities for people to have open dialogue, so that it's a back and forth type of thing. And I understand that she's the governor, she's the boss as far as all that goes, however, just be open and a little more understanding. Even her father, who I wasn't a huge fan of, I thought was much more effective," Myles said, adding that he did not vote for her in 2022 and wouldn't vote for her again.

With a population now of more than 3 million people, Arkansas politicians once joked about needing to shake everybody's hand to get their vote. Candidates crisscrossed the state to attend the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, the Gillette Coon Supper and the Hope Watermelon festival. But times have changed, Hutchinson said, and so has where Arkansans get their information.

“Things do change. Any state leader now has to recognize that the average Arkansas voter gets their news through national media as well as local media,”Hutchinson told USA TODAY. “Everybody has a different style and she has implemented a style that works for her.”

Hutchinson, the previous Arkansas governor before Sanders, ran against Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination and has been a vocal detractor since. He praised Sanders' accomplishments, including passing a school choice initiative that also raised teacher salaries, lowering taxes and creating jobs.“From every measuring stick of [passing her agenda], serving the state as governor, I think she has done remarkably well,” Hutchinson said.

Still, her first year as governor was dogged by the type of scandal that presidential campaigns try to avoid.

Sanders' office used a state-issued credit card in June 2023 to make a $19,029.25 payment for a lectern to Beckett Events, a boutique event planning company whose owners are close with the governor. Similar lecterns can be found online for about a third of the price. The state Republican Party later reimbursed the state for the amount.

Matt Campbell, a Little Rock attorney and progressive blogger, first questioned the purchase, which soon became national news labeled as #lecterngate or #podiumgate. Late-night comedians pounced. Lawmakers ordered a months-long audit of how the lectern was procured and purchased, which found that Sanders' staff potentially violated several state laws.

Sanders responded by releasing a rap video on X featuring the podium and telling them "to come and take it."

The Republican state attorney general and a local prosecutor declined to bring any charges, saying it is ambiguous whether state purchasing laws apply to the governor's office.

Voters split on Sanders' odds

Arkansans are split on what should be next for Sanders.

Brad Clark, 69, of Little Rock who doesn't support her said it seems like the governor has an eye on the door.

"I have no comment, because I'm trying to be nice," Clark said with a laugh. "I know that's what she's running for. I believe she's running to get out of the state of Arkansas to be the president or something."

Michael Thrasher, 32, of Little Rock, who does support her, said Sanders has brought the kind of business to the state that will draw young people back to Arkansas. He said he thinks it is too soon for her to move on and join the Trump ticket.

"I would love it, but she needs to stay here," Thrasher said. "With her only getting in here and only being in the governorship for a year or two now, it's still kind of early for someone that doesn't have a lot political experience. I loved her as press secretary, she did really good at that, and I think she could continue to do good as governor. She doesn't need to jump to the national stage just yet."

To be VP for Trump, loyalty and TV presence count. Sarah Huckabee Sanders fits the bill (2024)


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