Everybody lies. It’s just a fact of life.
We lie to our spouses when they ask, “Do you like my shoes?” and we say “yes.” We lie to our friends when we say we can’t go out because of another obligation when we’re really binge-watching “Game of Thrones” on the couch. We lie to our bosses when we call in sick to work when really, we hit it a little too hard at happy hour the night before. We lie to our kids when they ask us if a certain mythical creature who trespasses every Christmas Eve is real. When we are kids, we lie to our parents to avoid getting into trouble, even though it rarely works.
These “white lies” of course are completely harmless and can even be an act of friendship or love.
But what happens when your job requires you to lie or when you know your boss is lying to you? What happens when the lies you tell aren’t harmless, but are incredibly consequential?
This is the predicament White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders found herself in Thursday afternoon at the White House press briefing.
In the wake of Trump legal adviser Rudy Giuliani’s revelation that President Donald Trump reimbursed his attorney Michael Cohen for a six-figure payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels, Sanders was besieged with questions about her own statements to the press about the payment.
In March, Sanders was quoted in The New York Times saying, “I’ve had conversations with the president about this. … There was no knowledge of any payments from the president, and he has denied all these allegations.”
On Thursday, Sanders was confronted by the White House press corps with direct questions no spokesperson ever wants to hear: “Were you lying to us at the time? Or were you in the dark?”
It’s a fair question.
Either Sanders was lying about her conversations with the president in March or the president lied to her in those conversations. Neither answer is a good one if you’re Sanders.
If Sanders is uncomfortable with lying and being lied to, why does she stay in the job that makes her the mouthpiece of a presidency that lies 6 1/2 times a day?
There is always an inherent tension between the media and spokespeople like Sanders. The media always wants more information than what you may be willing or able to share. Just because a reporter asks you a question doesn’t mean they are entitled to an answer. Sometimes there are classified actions or materials in play that would be inappropriate and illegal to share in the public domain. Sometimes there are ongoing negotiations between different policymakers that would be undone if the media got involved prematurely. Sometimes it really is none of their damn business.
I’ve been on just about every side of this equation in my 10-plus years working as a spokesman in Washington.
I’ve leaked things to further a narrative that was politically advantageous for my boss. I’ve had to respond to things leaked by other people to derail our agenda. In one remarkable act of stupidity, I leaked emails to a book writer that ended up getting leaked to another reporter and cost me my job.
But what Sanders is going through right now reminds me very much of what I went through before I made the decision to resign working with Breitbart News in the wake of an incident between then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields and then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
On the one hand, I was being asked to craft and put out statements to the media that painted a picture of a media company standing by its own reporter. On the other hand, Breitbart was publishing stories on its homepage undermining Fields’ story.
When you get to a point when you are being lied to, you know you are being lied to, and the reporters you are talking to know you are lying to them, it’s time to walk away.
I remember so vividly the moment I came to this realization.
When you are in a fight and under siege, your instinct, right or wrong, is to fight back. Sometimes you get so caught up in the fight, you don’t even stop to think if you’re on the right side of it because you just want to win. James Carville and Paul Begala once wrote that in business, 49 percent market share means you’re rich, but in politics it means you’re through. That’s why politics is so inherently nasty. If you lose, your whole career can be derailed.
And yet, in the midst of this national controversy with Fields and Lewandowski, I had a moment of clarity that changed the course of my entire professional life. After an insane morning, I finally had a few minutes to grab a shower. It was the first time that I could finally just stand still and process everything going on. And then it hit me like a lightning bolt.
“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself out loud.
I literally jumped out of the shower, ran to my laptop, and at 2 p.m. on Friday March 11, 2016, I sent the Breitbart leadership an email resigning. I said at the time that I had reached the point where I could no longer represent them to the best of my ability, “and when you reach that point, it is time to move on.”
Sanders said on Thursday, “with all due respect, you actually don’t know much about me in terms of what I feel and what I don’t.”
That might be true, but the reality is by staying, Sanders is speaking volumes. As The Washington Post tabulated, in Trump’s first 466 days in office, he made 3,001 false or misleading claims. If Sanders is uncomfortable with lying and being lied to, why does she stay in the job that makes her the mouthpiece of a presidency that lies 6 1/2 times a day? Why doesn’t she find that moment of moral clarity, resign and, more importantly, speak out about the White House’s casual relationship with truth and fact?
I know better than most that walking away is not an easy thing to do. But at some point, you should be able to look yourself in the mirror and own the choices you have made. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is at an inflection point in her career where she can be remembered either as the person who helped Donald Trump lie every day or as the person who said “enough is enough” and did something about it.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist. He was a spokesman for former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) and Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter at @kurtbardella.