It’s a stock response of every White House press secretary who’s either caught off guard or is trying to dodge a sticky question. When a reporter asks a tough question during a briefing, the reply from the podium is often a punt: “I’ll get back to you on that.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Trump’s press secretary, invoked some version of IGBTYOT 10 times on Thursday , which may be a record for a single briefing, if records for such things were kept. Among other topics, she vowed to get back to reporters after they asked questions about: foreign aid to Egypt; the president’s ban on transgender members of the military; the arrest of a Russian dissident; the possibility of a presidential pardon for former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; the job status of the Internal Revenue Service commissioner; and the White House’s reaction to federal approval of Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for her to follow up.
White House reporters say it’s unusual for Sanders, or her predecessors, to make good on a promise to get back to them with an answer. They tend to regard the get-back-to-you line the way a creditor reacts to being told the check is in the mail: They’ll believe it when they see it.
Bloomberg News reporter Margaret Talev, for example, asked Sanders earlier this month about a report that the U.S. Air Force intended to purchase two Boeing 747s once used by a bankrupt Russian airline as a cheaper alternative to building a new Air Force One. “Can you verify the accuracy of the story?” Talev said. “Do you know if that’s correct?”
Sanders said she’d check and reply later. Talev never heard back.
During the same briefing, CBS News reporter Chip Reid asked the press secretary if it would be “appropriate” for the president to apologize for telling police officers to be “rough” with suspects, a comment police officials and others had criticized. Sanders replied she would let him know if or when she knew.
She hasn’t, Reid said.
“I don’t cover the White House on a regular basis so I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he said. “But as I was leaving the briefing room that day a few people who cover the White House full time told me not to expect her to get back to me. So I wasn’t surprised that she did not.”
At a briefing in mid-July, Fox News Radio reporter Jon Decker asked Sanders if the president viewed Russia as “a friend, a partner, an ally or an adversary?” Decker had asked a variation of the question two days earlier. Another reporter had asked a similar question the day after that. Neither had gotten an answer. On the third try, Sanders still didn’t have a response, but vowed, “I do assure you I will certainly work to make sure I get that answer to you.”
More than a month later, there hasn’t been an answer.
John Gizzi of Newsmax got the I’ll-get-back-to-you treatment from Sanders in July when he asked her if Trump was willing to negotiate with Republicans in Congress about reforming Social Security and Medicare. Weeks later, Gizzi still hasn’t gotten an RSVP from Sanders. He blames himself, in part, for “not pursuing or pressing [her] harder.”
On the other hand, Gizzi did get a follow-up response from Sanders when he inquired about the U.S. delegation to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s funeral. Sanders delivered the details at a briefing in June. “I was impressed,” he said.
Gizzi rates Sanders as “above average” in following up on his questions, the same Lake Wobegone-ish mark he’d give “most” of the nine press secretaries he’s dealt with in covering the White House. “But none can be perfect and reply every time because there aren’t enough hours in the day,” he says.
In fact, given the many questions any White House faces, it’s unlikely a press secretary could have all the answers right at his or her fingertips. So the get-back-to-you formulation makes sense as a hedge against speaking prematurely or without a full command of the facts.
But reporters suspect it can also be a convenient way to avoid talking about an issue that might embarrass the president, particularly in front of a roomful of journalists and a bank of live TV cameras.
Asked about her record of replying, Sanders said in an email she tries “to respond to as many questions as fully as I can at each briefing. I have also on several occasions followed up with reporters and answered their questions after the briefing when I can.”
Asked in a subsequent email if she avoids inconvenient questions by declining to follow up, Sanders didn’t follow up with an answer.