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Trump surrogate who is cool, calm and collected under fire

Mrs Sarah Huckabee Sanders hardly broke a sweat when peppered with questions about FBI chief James Comey's sacking.
Mrs Sarah Huckabee Sanders hardly broke a sweat when peppered with questions about FBI chief James Comey's sacking.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

More and more people are criss-crossing US President Donald Trump's path in the ongoing flap over possible Russian involvement in his election. US correspondent Paul Zach takes a look at two who took their turns in the White House "hot seat" last week - a woman who defended Mr Trump, and a man who stood up to him.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Soon after news of United States President Donald Trump firing Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey had shaken the US capital, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dodged journalists by diving behind the shrubs bordering the White House.

And soon after that, another of Mr Trump's swelling line of surrogates stepped into the spotlight - and took her turn in the hot seat.

Yet, in sharp contrast to Mr Spicer's often testy exchanges with the press, Mrs Sarah Huckabee Sanders hardly broke a sweat. When peppered with questions about Mr Comey's sacking last Tuesday and Wednesday, she looked as cool, calm and collected as a seasoned senator like John McCain.

Perhaps that was not surprising.

Mrs Sanders, as her middle name reveals, has politics in her blood. Her father is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, former Fox show host and hardline conservative Republican who ran a short-lived campaign for the presidential nomination last year that went to Mr Trump.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Her lack of bluster makes her a rarity in Trumpland and far more frightening than her colleagues. It's an impressive showing for a newcomer. Then again, there's no high bar to clear when your boss is known for making concentration camps sound like YMCAs and your father is this guy.

SLATE, on Mrs Sanders and her father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Although Mrs Sanders, who turns 35 in August, grew up in the governor's mansion in Little Rock, she started carving out a political career of her own while she was still a student at Ouachita Baptist University in nearby Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

Her father appointed her as field coordinator for his 2002 re-election campaign.

Before long, she moved to Washington as a regional liaison for congressional affairs at the Department of Education. By 2004, she had moved on to presidential politics as the Ohio field director for then President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

She went on to help with her father's first presidential bid in 2008 as his national political director, working "up to 90 hours a week", according to Time magazine, and advising Mr Huckabee "on everything from debate strategy to tie selection", according to USA Today.

That was also when she met Republican political consultant Bryan Sanders. They married on the US Virgin Islands in 2010 and have three children, Scarlett, Huck and George.

In fact, the first thing Mrs Sanders did when she stepped up to the White House podium for the second time last Wednesday - when Mr Spicer was serving Navy Reserve duty at the Pentagon - was to make a wish for Scarlett.

"I think her first birthday wish would probably be that you guys are incredibly nice," she said with a smile at journalists ready to pounce on her with tough questions.

Mrs Sanders joined Mr Trump's campaign three weeks after her father dropped out of the race in February last year because, as she said in a statement, " he is a champion of working families; not Washington-Wall Street elites".

"What makes Mr Trump my choice for president is he will break the grip of the donor class on our government and make it accountable to working families again," she added.

The media itself was generally complimentary of Mrs Sanders' performance under fire, as she kept her answers short and to the point.

Comparing her to "the understudy who gets pressed into the lead role after the star suddenly becomes incapacitated", the Washington Post reported one journalist as saying: "She's remarkably poised for her age. She has her father's sense of humour, which is a good thing.

"People who've held that job before are humourless."

However, Slate online magazine was more circumspect in its evaluation.

"Her lack of bluster makes her a rarity in Trumpland and far more frightening than her colleagues. It's an impressive showing for a newcomer," wrote one of its columnists.

"Then again, there's no high bar to clear when your boss is known for making concentration camps sound like YMCAs and your father is this guy."

The "this guy" referred to how Mr Huckabee was accused of being racist for a Tweet he posted on a Hispanic holiday on May 5: "For Cinco de Mayo I will drink an entire jar of hot salsa and watch old Speedy Gonzales cartoons and speak Spanish all day."


From pursuit of terrorists and Russian mobsters to top FBI job

Andrew McCabe


The poker face which Mr Andrew McCabe showed as he stated that he would be steadfast in his pursuit of the truth about Russian links to the presidential polls, if any, could win him more fans at the FBI. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

If United States President Donald Trump thought he could easily win over the loyalty of an acting head of the FBI, Mr Andrew McCabe put paid to such notions just 48 hours after Mr Trump fired his boss.

Pointedly asked if the White House was correct to say that sacked Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief James Comey had lost the support of his agents, Mr McCabe simply said he had not.

When told that the Trump administration had said the FBI viewed its own investigation into possible Russian interference in last year's presidential election as a low priority, Mr McCabe countered that, on the contrary, the bureau considered it "highly significant".

The rapid-fire line of questioning came as Mr McCabe was grilled by the Senate Intelligence Committee last Thursday. Last Tuesday, Mr Trump had fired Mr Comey, a move that did not seem to intimidate the acting FBI boss in the least.

That came as no surprise to long- time observers of the Washington scene, even as it has become more unpredictable with each passing day of the Trump presidency.

UNIMPEACHABLE CHARACTER

Anybody who is a detractor of Mr McCabe's career probably has a few holes in his professional portfolio. There are a handful of guys I can attribute this to: His character is unimpeachable.

MR JAMES GAGLIANO, who supervised Mr Andrew McCabe on a Swat team in the FBI's New York office, told The New York Times.

Mr McCabe is known as "a great briefer" - a favourite way of criticising him with a backhanded compliment in FBI lexicon - The New York Times said last week.

In the piece, Mr McCabe, who joined the bureau in 1996, comes across not like a daring secret agent like James Bond - although he is a triathlete and cycles56km to the capital offices from neighbouring Virginia.

Yet as the Los Angeles Times noted when Mr Comey appointed him as his deputy director last year, Mr McCabe, 49, is one of the most powerful figures in US law enforcement.

After graduating from Duke University and earning a law degree from Washington University in St Louis, he decided to join the bureau instead of a law office in 1996.

"I spent a lot of time reading agent reports, and I thought, 'Boy, that would be a cool job,'" he told the LA Times.

Soon he found himself in the New York office helping to take out a gang of murderous Russian mobsters. Now he is responsible for overseeing the investigations of terrorists and corrupt officials, the inquiry into Mrs Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, and spies.

Standout cases that he has been involved in include the nabbing and interrogation of a suspect in the 2012 attacks on the US diplomatic offices in Benghazi, Libya, and the investigation of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that led to the identification of the suspects and the capture of one and killing of the other.

Yet the LA Times noted that most Americans would have been hard- pressed to pick him out of a line-up - at least until live coverage of his appearance on Capitol Hill last week.

No matter. The poker face he showed as he stated that he would remain steadfast in his pursuit of the truth about Russian connections, if any, is unlikely to sit well with Mr Trump, but it could win him more fans at the bureau itself.

"Anybody who is a detractor of Mr McCabe's career probably has a few holes in his professional portfolio," Mr James Gagliano, who supervised him on a Swat team in the New York office, told The New York Times.

"There are a handful of guys I can attribute this to: His character is unimpeachable."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline 'Trump surrogate who is cool, calm and collected under fire '. Print Edition | Subscribe