WASHINGTON — With Sarah Sanders on her way out of the White House, President Trump is looking for a new press secretary and, as usual, he has his eye on cable news.
Multiple sources in the president’s orbit told Yahoo News that Trump’s vision for Sanders’s replacement doesn’t involve returning to traditional White House press briefings. Instead, the sources said the president is looking for an aggressive defender to make regular television appearances. He also seems settled on having a woman fill the role: The list of top contenders to take the position is filled with five women who have on-air experience.
“This is about how you can take control of the news cycle and represent the president. ... What Trump ultimately wants as the press secretary is someone who’s going to be a loyalist and an attack dog to go out there and defend him,” one source close to the president said.
Multiple sources named five women who are in the running for the press secretary. Stephanie Grisham, who has served as the primary spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump, topped the list. Grisham did not respond to requests for comment.
The sources were divided on whether Grisham would be open to moving from Melania Trump’s office to the West Wing; however, there was a consensus that the job was hers for the taking. A source close to the president said Grisham is “the best” fit for the position.
“She’s defended Melania and shown that she’s definitely up for the street fighter aspect of this,” the source said of Grisham, who has aggressively responded to various rumors and stories about the first lady.
A former Trump campaign adviser agreed with that assessment.
“She’s got the inside support. FLOTUS loves her,” the ex-adviser said of Grisham. “She understands how to work with Trump and the media. She’s protected them.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Sanders, who is set to leave her post at the end of this month, transformed the role of the press secretary since coming onboard in mid-2017. Traditionally the position involved being the public face of the White House via a daily press briefing. However, under Sanders, the briefings went from multiple times a week to being virtually eliminated. Sanders stepped behind the podium in the White House briefing room only two times so far this year.
Her last briefing was 95 days ago.
In the absence of briefings, Sanders role has largely involved making appearances on television news programs to defend the president. All of the sources who discussed her replacement with Yahoo News indicated Trump wants a similar approach for her successor.
“They haven’t had a briefing in 90-something days. It might be another 90 days. ... This isn’t about a job at the podium,” the source close to the president said.
Trump is a devoted cable news watcher who focuses on how he’s portrayed on television. So his ideal press secretary, a former campaign staffer said, would be “a figurehead … who appears on TV all the time.”
“That’s the thing with Trumpworld. The only thing that matters if you’re a high-level person on the press or communications side is whether you’re good on TV,” the ex-staffer said. “At the end of the day, he only takes you seriously if you’re on TV.”
Trump’s focus on television also has made him eager to have a woman fill the press secretary role. “It’s pretty clear the president wants a woman to do it,” the source close to Trump said. “He likes that imagery. He’s kind of settled in what he’s looking for.”
The source suggested that the desire for a woman as press secretary meant that Tony Sayegh, a senior Treasury spokesperson who has been spoken of as a potential successor to Sanders, was unlikely to get the gig. Sayegh, who left his post on Thursday, has been the top spokesperson for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Multiple sources said another man, Sanders’s current deputy Hogan Gidley, was also not in the running for the role due to opposition from other members of the administration.
“Almost universally nobody wants Hogan to do it,” the source close to the president said. “That’s the common refrain, anybody but him.”
Gidley did not respond to a request for comment.
Along with Grisham, the other women who are said to be in the running for the press secretary job are Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich, and former State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. None of them responded to requests for comment. All of them have extensive television experience. Like Pavlich, both Ortagus and Nauert have worked at Fox News.
Multiple sources said that Kupec was recently offered a position as a leading spokesperson on President Trump’s reelection campaign that would have been an ideal stepping stone to the press secretary role. However, Kupec turned down that position. The source close to the president cited this as a reason they were dubious Kupec would be interested in leaving her position at the Justice Department. They argued Kupec “likes the autonomy” that comes with being outside of the White House.
“She gets the experience but isn’t necessarily labeled as a Trump person,” the source said of Kupec.
Trump previously announced he would nominate Nauert to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations last December. However, Nauert ultimately withdrew from consideration amid reports she had employed a nanny who was not authorized to work in the United States. That issue could also be a roadblock to Nauert getting the press secretary job.
Ortagus and Pavlich don’t have that kind of baggage. The source close to Trump said the president “likes” Ortagus because she’s “a Fox person.” But while appearances on Fox News would definitely catch Trump’s eye, that might not be enough to secure the press secretary post.
That source noted Sanders’s interactions with the press often included contentious interactions with reporters from major news outlets.
“When’s the last time Sarah had an interview that was just a lay-up?” the source asked.
Similarly, Trump would be looking for someone who had a body of work that extended beyond conservative media to replace Sanders.
“This is a street fighter-type position over at the White House,” the source said. “This isn’t Fox News where everyone likes the president and it’s just presentation and delivery.”
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