Weeks of escalating strain between press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and reporters boiled over in the White House briefing room on Thursday, as press members tussled with Sanders over immigration issues, she insulted the intelligence of one reporter, and another interrupted the proceedings with a dramatic outburst.
Reporters have been growing frustrated with Sanders over the lack of briefings and their short length. In addition, Sanders repeatedly refused to discuss her past denials that President Donald Trump had dictated a false statement about why his son met with a Russian lawyer—since contradicted by the president’s lawyers—prompting reporters to openly question her credibility. Swirling in the air on Thursday was a CBS News report saying that Sanders is planning to leave the White House by the end of the year, which Sanders has pushed back on.
“Credibility issues are just getting more obvious and reporters are getting really frustrated with it it’s causing tension,” said one White House reporter who was at Thursday’s briefing. “It’s sort of coming to a head. The statements are more disprovable, more obvious.”
At issue on Thursday was Sanders’ answers to questions about immigration, as the press secretary repeatedly refused to acknowledge the fact that a Trump administration decision led to the controversial policy of border agents separating migrant children from their parents.
“I’m well acquainted with BS when I see it and hear it,” said Brian Karem, the reporter whose outburst interrupted the briefing and who has had previous briefing room outbursts. “After so much of it, I’m only human.”
Karem, the executive editor of Sentinel Newspapers and a columnist for Playboy, said it was the combination of such an emotional issue and his frustration at Sanders’ non-answers that sent him over the edge.
“It’s been coming to a head in that room,” he said. “It’s an ongoing problem in that press room, getting honest answers to honest questions and the cheap shots that this administration takes against reporters is frustrating to listen to…It’s a narrative we must push back against.”
Sanders did not respond immediately to request for comment.
Another frequent complaint among reporters is that briefings that are not only fewer and farther between, but often short. While under past administrations, briefings could easily run over an hour. Thursday’s briefing was 18 minutes long, a typical time for Sanders. The briefing was only the third in June, though presidential trips to the G-7 meeting and North Korea summit in Singapore intervened.
“Reporters know they have to get their questions in and it’s causing problems, and it’s making [the briefings] more tense and combative,” the reporter who attended Thursday’s briefing said. “There’s so much news happening and there are so many questions about so many stories.”
The conflict on Thursday started when CNN’s Jim Acosta, a long-running Sanders sparring-partner, pressed her on whether the White House’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border is a “moral policy.”
As they went back and forth, Sanders contested one of Acosta’s follow-ups, saying, “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess, but please don’t take my words out of context.”
A reporter in the crowd could be heard saying, “That’s a cheap shot, Sarah.”
Sanders blamed Democrats for the policy and said the Trump administration was bound to enforce the law, even though the policy is the result of a Trump administration decision. “Illegal alien families is the product of the same legal loopholes that Democrats refuse to close. And these laws are the same that have been on the books for over a decade,” she said.
When reached by POLITICO, Acosta declined to comment, other than to say, “Just doing my job.”
The next reporter to question Sanders, CBS News’ Paula Reid, appeared similarly frustrated.
Reid pointed out that the decision to separate families at the border resulted from the administration’s decision to switch from pursuing border-crossing cases as criminal instead of civil matters, going back and forth several times with Sanders.
“Again, the laws are the ones that have been on the books for over a decade, and the president is enforcing them,” Sanders said.
When Reid provided specifics –“Jeff Sessions made a decision in April that he was going to move from handling it as a civil matter to criminal, and then separating the families” — Sanders was unmoved.
Reached by POLITICO, Reid declined to comment, other than to say, “The exchange speaks for itself.”