The amount of spotlight on the White House press secretary is often inversely proportional to the fortunes of his or her administration. When asked to handle dozens of questions on different issues with verbal dexterity, even the most capable can stumble and stammer at times. All that's expected is to not create new mistakes that could have been easily avoided. So it really says something that current press secretary Sarah Sanders can't even reach that low bar.
On "Fox News Sunday," Sanders tried to defend the president's obsession with a border wall by arguing it would keep out terrorists. "We know that roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally," she told host Chris Wallace, "and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border." You'll notice there that Sanders didn't say those terrorists were coming through the southern border; she just put the two clauses next to each other and hoped viewers would connect the two.
But Wallace was having none of it: “Wait, wait, wait — I know the statistic,” he replied, “I didn’t know you were going to use it. But I studied up on this. Do you know where those 4,000 people come — where they’re captured? Airports.”
Flummoxed, Sanders could only stammer, “Not always.”
Wallace then administered the final blow: “The State Department says there hasn’t been any terrorists that they’ve found coming across the southern border with Mexico.”
Unable to contest the administration’s own data, Sanders was reduced to repeating the just-discredited talking point.
That wasn’t Sanders’s only rough patch Sunday morning. She said, “The president’s not fighting for the wall,” then within 20 seconds said, “He wants the wall.” She claimed “we’re not holding anybody hostage” by refusing to sign bills funding departments unrelated to homeland security, before admitting that President Trump wants to keep those agencies' funding on the table “to stop kicking the can down the road” and force a confrontation on the wall. And she had no answer on whether Trump could declare a national emergency to build a border wall. (She would only say that “whatever action he takes will certainly be lawful” — hardly a ringing endorsement.)
That said, those stumbles are less about Sanders’s competence and more about the fact that her boss’s shutdown strategy has boxed in his staff and his party. They have to pretend that the shutdown isn’t Trump’s fault even when he admits it is. But the “4,000” terrorists screw-up is entirely of Sanders’s own making. Since those numbers have been debunked for months, other Trump administration members have been slippery enough to stick to vague warnings about “the risk that we have terrorists come across that border.” But Sanders — who’s supposed to be a professional at this — just blundered right into being easily embarrassed on national television.
Wallace and the “Fox News Sunday” team deserve credit for prepping for Sanders and calling her out. But her appearance again raises the question: If Sanders (and other White House staffers such as Kellyanne Conway) will just offer viewers lazy deception, what’s the point of having them as guests at all?
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.