Toward the end of Speaking for Myself, Sarah Huckabee Sanders recalls a conversation with Donald Trump in which she advises him her book will be aimed at defending his reputation.
“I think you will like it,” says the president’s second press secretary. “You have been falsely attacked and misrepresented for too long and it’s time for America to know the real story.”
An approving president replies: “Can’t wait. I’m sure it will be great.”
Whether Sanders has succeeded is open to debate. Speaking for Myself does a better job in burnishing her brand in advance of a possible run for the Arkansas governorship in 2022. It is very much a would-be candidate’s autobiography, even as it devotes countless pages to its author’s time in the White House.
Sanders shares her experiences of being the daughter of Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas and two-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. She also describes her time as a student, how she met her husband and life as a working mother. Personal normalcy and faith are the dominant themes, the narrative a mixture of whitewashing and score-settling but with the emphasis on the former.
Sanders describes her father’s 2008 presidential run, including his win in the Iowa caucus. She heaps praise on a campaign ad featuring the martial-arts eminence Chuck Norris, and goes out of her way to knock Mitt Romney, a rival to her father who would win the nomination in 2012, for his “flip-flops” on “nearly every major issue”.
The tension between Romney and the Huckabees predates his vote this year, as a senator from Utah, to convict Trump on impeachment charges. Rather, it is tribal.
Unmentioned by Sanders is her father having attacked Romney’s faith. In the run-up to Iowa, Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, declared the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “religion”, not a “cult”. But in the next breath, he pondered whether Mormons believe “Jesus and the devil are brothers”. Evangelicals comprised three-fifths of Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers. Among them, Huckabee trounced Romney by more than 25 points.
Not surprisingly, when Sanders describes her time in the Trump White House she goes full-bore at Robert Mueller, doing her best to play the victim. As is to be expected, she regurgitates the “no-collusion” party line and offers full-throated endorsements of Bill Barr, Trump’s second attorney general, and Pat Cipollone, his second White House counsel, for their defense of the president.
This too is personal. In the aftermath of James Comey’s dismissal as FBI director in May 2017, Sanders did her best to trash his reputation, including falsely stating “the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director”. Questioned by a reporter on her version of reality, Sanders remained unyielding: “Look, we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI.”
Pressed by the special counsel, Sanders characterized those remarks as a “slip of the tongue”, made “in the heat of the moment” and “not founded on anything”.
Now, time has passed, an election looms and Sanders isn’t having any of it. She accuses Mueller’s staff of “totally” misrepresenting her statements, for no purpose other than to “vilify” and “falsely” attack her. Likewise, she draws no line between her baseless accusations and prosecutors’ concerns about obstruction of justice.
Sanders remains silent about the fact Mueller issued a correction of Barr’s characterization of his report. Likewise, though she denies collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the Senate intelligence committee recently cast a different light on the operative facts.
In its report, the committee confirmed Trump lied to the special counsel and that Paul Manafort – the campaign manager whose departure paved the way for Steve Bannon – worked hand in glove with a Russian intelligence officer in an effort to help his candidate.
Whether any of it altered the election result is a different story. From the looks of things, Comey probably had a greater impact.
In an act of grace, Sanders goes easy on Cliff Sims, a former White House staffer who lashed into her in Team of Vipers, his tell-all from 2019. As press secretary, Sims wrote, Sanders “didn’t press as hard as she could have for the rock-bottom truth”. He also said her “gymnastics with the truth would tax even the nimblest of prevaricators, and Sanders was not that”.
Sanders turns the other cheek, acknowledging Sims as the author of the “script” she delivered at each daily briefing and crediting him as “an excellent writer and fellow southerner”. Sims was banished from the administration and sued the president, but recently worked as a speechwriter at the Republican convention.
To Sanders, Jim Acosta of CNN and the former national security adviser John Bolton are different. Extracts attacking Bolton were leaked to coincide with the release of his book, The Room Where It Happened, this summer. Acosta is accused of “grandstanding to build his media profile”, Sanders questioning his commitment to getting the “story right”.
Unfortunately, Sanders can go overboard with ethnic reductionism. Or, at least, she could have used some editing.
Sanders does a cultural compare-and-contrast with Josh Raffel, a former staffer who handled public relations for Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Raffel, Sanders observes, was a “liberal, aggressive, foulmouthed Jew from New York City”. Substitute, “non-church-going Presbyterian” for “Jew” and you would have a description of the 45th president.
Sanders also lets the reader know she had “grown to love Josh” and heaps praise on his sense of humor.
One of few Trump aides to leave the West Wing smiling and of her free will, Sanders’ spouse and children have not spoken out. This is as candid as we are going to get. It is not an audition for another Trump-tied gig. She has her eyes on a different executive mansion – in Little Rock, Arkansas.