Sarah Huckabee Sanders is not hiding behind the bushes.
On one of the bigger news days of President Donald Trump’s fledgling administration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was absent due to his “previously scheduled” Naval Reserve duty.
So it was Sanders, the 34-year-old deputy press secretary, who found herself behind the briefing room lectern on Wednesday, fielding questions about the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign.
Like the Trump administration’s chief spokesman, Sanders suffered a few blunders during what was only her second White House briefing — her first just five days prior — but her calm, cool and collected approach to rapid-fire questioning stood in stark contrast to that of Spicer’s own brash mannerisms.
But Sanders isn’t a soft pushover, and she can hold her own — as evidenced by her approach to Thursday’s briefing. Sanders often sighed and lamented that she had to repeat herself, answering reporters’ questions regarding Comey’s firing with, “I think I’ve already answered this.”
Sanders' approach to handling the press is due to years of political upbringing, her father told Fox News in an interview. And for those who might not recognize her face, Sanders’ maiden name, Huckabee, is a dead giveaway for just what kind of political upbringing that was.
The daughter of former two-time Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sanders grew up in politics in a way that many kids don’t, Huckabee said.
“I always say that when most kids are 7 or 8 years old out jumping rope, she was sitting at the kitchen table listening to [political commentators] analyze poll results,” he said.
Sanders was consistently ingrained in her father’s own political aspirations, serving as his field director for his 2002 gubernatorial reelection campaign and national political director during his 2008 presidential bid. In 2016, she ran his presidential campaign.
But it was growing up in the Arkansas governor’s mansion as a young teenager that prepared Sanders for her current role as deputy press secretary, Huckabee said.
Huckabee became governor in the summer of 1996 as the then-Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of fraud. Huckabee describes the transition and the media during that time as “hostile” and "brutal” as the legislature was the “most lopsided in the country” — worse than that of Massachusetts or Maine, he said. At the time, Huckabee said, Sanders was in junior high school.
“[Sanders] saw how utterly unfair and petty the press can be for even simple things,” Huckabee said. “So having grown up with that, I think people don’t understand — it’s not just that she presents a sort of sense of being beyond it; she really is. She’s seen it her whole life.”
But Huckabee also credits his daughter’s poise behind the briefing room podium to another familial matter — growing up with two older brothers.
“She grew up pretty doggone tough. She had to, as a matter of survival,” Huckabee said. “She’s got a very sweet heart, but she’s tough, and she can handle herself. She’s had to take all kinds of gruff from her brothers, so she’s pretty fearless.”
Huckabee added that as his youngest child — and his only daughter at that — Sanders was at time spoiled by her parents. But even still, the Huckabees sought to instill a spirit of hard work in all the children, he said.
“She’s always been raised to tell the truth, take responsibility for her own actions, to work hard for what she wants in life. Even as teenagers, when they went to things like church camp, we wouldn’t pay their tuition,” he said. “We told them that they needed to work in the cafeteria or snack bar to cover their costs — not because it was absolutely necessary, but because we wanted them to understand and appreciate that everything costs something.”
Road to the White House
Huckabee describes his daughter as the type who was always ambitious. Like him, Sanders attended Ouachita Baptist University, a private liberal arts school in southwest Arkansas where she was student body president.
Following college, Sanders took a job at the Department of Education under the Bush administration, according to a 2007 profile in Time.
Sanders’ resume includes a bevy of GOP campaigns: working on former President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, acting as a senior advisor to Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s Senate bid and managing other Arkansas Sen. John Boozman’s bid for Senate.
Outside of campaigning, Sanders worked as a national campaign manager for Bono’s ONE Campaign, the grassroots advocacy organization aimed at ending poverty.
In 2010, Sanders was named to Time’s 40 Under 40 list along with longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, civil rights leader Ben Jealous and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.
But it was after Huckabee's withdrawal from the Republican-heavy field of presidential candidates in February 2016 when Sanders was tapped by the Trump campaign as a senior advisor and eventual on-air surrogate.
“I volunteered to join Mr. Trump’s campaign because he is a champion of working families, not Washington-Wall Street elites,” Sanders said in a statement released by the campaign at the time.
Her statement added praise for Trump’s anti-abortion and “pro-marriage” stance.
As Sanders has gained more notoriety in the Trump administration — often appearing on camera to defend the president’s actions and agenda — rumors circulated among journalists and White House aides about her future in the Trump administration.
Her time behind the podium this week in Spicer’s absence could be an audition for his job, anonymous White House aides reportedly told Politico.
"We’re all under the impression that [Sanders] is auditioning for a greater role in the Trump administration and don’t rule out Spicer’s job,” a White House aide told Fox News in response to the Politico report.
But Sanders dismissed the idea as just “another ridiculous story.”
Huckabee, too, found the notion that Sanders is “auditioning” for Spicer’s job ludicrous and said the rumors were “nonsense.”
“She likes what she’s doing. She really, really likes Sean [Spicer] and respects him a lot and really enjoys working with him and has no desire to take the job that he has,” Huckabee told Fox News. “It’s frustrating to her because she’s loyal to the president, and she’s loyal to Sean. She’s going to be grateful for the opportunity she has, and she has no intention of being anything but the person who is the deputy press secretary.”
Huckabee added that Spicer had already missed “a lot of days” with his Naval Reserve duties as “everything had been so intense in the early days of the White House” — so it should not be a concern that he missed briefings this week, despite the intensity of the news cycle.
“After this week Sarah might think it’s easier to be in the Navy at war than to go in that briefing room. She may enlist just to get an easier job, enlist for frontline combat,” Huckabee quipped.
Trump defended Spicer in an interview with Fox News' Jeanine Pirro that will air Saturday at 9pm ET, saying that he is "a wonderful human being" and "a nice man."
When asked directly if Spicer will continue in his role as the White House's chief spokesman, Trump simply shrugged and said, "Yeah, well he's been there from the beginning."
Huckabee said he watches Sanders’ briefings and will provide “coaching tips” — but that’s rarely needed.
“She’s quite good at this naturally. She’s certainly able and capable of doing what she does without me interfering at all with her performance,” he said. “I take an extraordinary level of pride watching her stand up there with great confidence and doing what is really one of the most impossible jobs in all of politics.”
But despite Sanders’ lengthy political resume — which includes his own campaigns — Huckabee says he’s the proudest of Sanders’ role as a wife and mother.
“[The public] sees her as deputy press secretary, walking into the briefing room, handling reporters and pushing back on them,” Huckabee said. “What they don’t see is that she’s a terrific wife and an absolutely wonderful mother, married to the greatest guy in the world.”
“I’m proud of her in the public world, but quite frankly, I’m even more proud of her as a wife and mother and somebody who values her relationship with her family more than anything else.”
Sanders certainly hasn’t forgotten her kids. On Wednesday, as the press sat waiting for answers on Comey’s seemingly unexpected firing, Sanders had another nugget of information for the press.
It was her daughter Scarlett’s fifth birthday.
“I think her first birthday wish would probably be that you guys are incredibly nice,” she said.
And with that, the briefing was underway.