Sarah Sanders is entitled to her opinions, but not her own facts

Consider the plight of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Is she a dupe doing “rope a dope” for President TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE, or is there something larger and more sinister at stake? The answer is probably between those two choices, however, allow me to unpack something that I believe is fundamentally important to how we govern and how we protect the right of the public to know and the obligation of the government to tell.

Let me stipulate that serving as press secretary to the president of the United States is by no means an easy gig. That is precisely the reason few of them last more than two and a half years. I did four years on behalf of President Clinton and, while it was the most interesting and challenging job I will ever have, it did have rather zesty moments that taxed my patience, and no doubt that of the White House press corps as well.


We call the interaction between government officials and politicians and the press corps an “adversarial relationship” because it is. However, I believed “adversarial” could also be “amicable.” There are, we hope, professionals on both sides of the podium in the White House briefing room who are committed to seeking the truth, telling the truth, reporting the truth, and letting the American people decide. My old boss, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, was fond of saying to his staff, “We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.”

The search for truth and understanding darkens when anyone knowingly leads the American people away from the cold hard facts. That is true for people who speak on behalf of presidents and also true for journalists and pundits who embellish their reports and commentaries to attract eyeballs and audiences that boost ratings and jazz up the Washington chit chat.

Sanders, according to a brief snippet in the report by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE, admits she made up a fact that “countless” FBI employees supported the decision of Trump to fire FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyNYT: Justice investigating alleged Comey leak of years-old classified info Bernie-Hillary echoes seen in Biden-Sanders primary fight Rosenstein on his time in Trump administration: 'We got all the big issues right' MORE. She confided to investigators that this was a mere “slip of the tongue” in “the heat of the moment.” To be fair, I probably slipped my tongue, too, in some rather heated moments in the first term of the Clinton presidency.

But the White House press secretary has an unerring obligation to keep all sides of government officials and journalists aimed toward the truth and not away from it. In the West Wing, the office of the press secretary is equidistant from the Briefing Room where the press secretary jousts with journalists and the Oval Office where the president hopefully provides the right information on how to answer questions accurately and honestly.

That all seems a little quaint in the age of Trump. I find it hard to imagine that there is a commitment to getting accurate and useful information to the public within a White House that revels in declaring the free press, protected by our First Amendment by the way, the “enemy of the people.” Such a retort, more worthy of Joseph Stalin than Thomas Jefferson, invites hostility if not violence to those who bring truth to the American people.

So Sanders lied. Is that acceptable? Very few circumstances in which a press secretary can say something untrue come to mind. First, you have to protect people who are in danger. In 1980, White House press secretary Jody Powell knowingly lied about an attempt to rescue United States diplomats being held hostage in Iran. He was protecting the operational security of a mission that ultimately failed. Powell took enormous grief for this decision but, till his dying day, he defended his decision and so do I.

Second, you sometimes have to tell the truth slowly, as I once said. The circumstances were a planned cruise missile attack aimed at decapitating the leadership of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization in August 1998. That attack failed because the leaders left before the missiles arrived. I had been asked that morning if the press could have the day off because we were in Martha’s Vineyard for a Clinton family vacation. I dissembled a bit and said “let me check a few things” before we called it quits for the day so the press could go golfing or to the beach. Little did they know the president would arrive in an hour to declare that we had just gone to war.

Third, sometimes you have to put reportable facts in the best possible light to provide “spin” to protect the political interests of the president. But “spin” and “prevarication” can cross lines easily, and that is the danger zone for those who seek the truth. That is where Sanders transgresses. Service to the president and to the truth are not always the same thing. Knowing where the balance is becomes the most difficult part of the job.

Someone must stand and be held accountable every day for answering questions and providing information to the public. Preparing for daily press briefings is hard but necessary work. Failing to conduct regular press briefings is an abomination, and there should be more outrage about this. Getting our federal agencies and departments to provide information is also a demand of the job. I browbeat Cabinet officials for information and got backed up by Clinton and his chiefs of staff, who told Cabinet secretaries that they needed to be attentive to all my requests.

Finally, we need some humor and gentleness in this exchange. It is not combat. That is why declaring the press to be the “enemy of the people” is so ultimately destructive. This is about making a democracy work. We should all lighten up but let everyone do the job they are obligated to do on something other than a war footing. I doubt much can change in this worn down administration. But there are many people now seeking to be the next president. We must demand that accountability and daily press briefings be one of the commitments they make when seeking office.

Mike McCurry served four years as White House press secretary under President Clinton. He is a communications consultant, a partner at Public Strategies Washington, and a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary.