Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s two phones were ringing nonstop on her desk late on a Friday afternoon.
It had been two days since she officially had been named White House press secretary — and just four minutes into an interview with Independent Journal Review.
Her assistant stepped into her office with yet another phone and flashed the screen in her face. She grabbed the phone, clicked it off, and said she only had time for two more questions.
“You’re going to want to see this news,” Sanders said, toggling between the interview and her assistant’s interruption.
President Donald Trump had just tweeted that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was out, and Gen. John Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, would replace him.
Sanders and just about every other woman in Trump’s inner circle haven’t lost ground in the continuous, six-month White House shakeup, as Politico noted in a piece on Wednesday. But in the haste of daily damage control, the policies these conservative women have been pushing are being sidelined and overshadowed.
Sanders’s first on-air briefing at the podium since getting her promotion on July 21 began more earnestly and emotionally than her typical dry humor permits.
“The reason we’re here is to serve the American people,” she began. “To the best of my knowledge, I’m the first mom to hold the job of the White House press secretary,” she added, her voice shaking a little bit.
“That says less about me than it does about this president. It’s not just with personnel: It’s about people, and it’s about policy. Empowering working moms is at the heart of the president’s agenda, particularly when it comes to things like tax reform.”
That particular policy is not often brought up in the context of “women’s issues,” but the longtime campaign operative and mother of three zeroed in on it as the main way the administration is serving working mothers.
“One of the things that’s the goal of the tax reform policy is to help working and middle-class families,” Sanders told IJR in the interview. “And a lot of middle-class families are either two income-earners or — now you have a lot more women who are the sole income-earner in their family. So helping those families certainly helps a lot of those working moms, working families. And I know it’s something that’s important for the president. I’ve heard him talk about it.”
In Sanders’s office, decorated with a bulletin board full of drawings made by her children, she talked about how her kids have wandered through the Rose Garden and peeked into the Oval Office. While she and Trump talk about her children during their meetings, she said they haven’t had many detailed conversations about policies relating to working women inside and outside the White House.
Tax reform veers from mainstream feminist efforts to help working mothers through advocacy for equal pay and paid leave for both mothers and fathers. But tax reform is just one of many issues the Trump communications team is spinning for him as pro-women. Trump’s version of paid family leave, encouraging female entrepreneurship and apprenticeship, and defunding abortion in the United States and abroad are all now being cast in the same “women’s issues” light, in part thanks to conservative women’s groups that now have a direct line to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
So far, this White House has only had success achieving its goals regarding women-focused policies through executive orders.
First, there was the reinstitution of the Mexico City policy, which halted federal funds toward non-governmental organizations abroad providing abortion counseling or referrals. There was the Department of Labor’s $1.3 million push in grants for recruiting women into apprenticeships and nontraditional occupations. And there were orders redirecting agency funds toward recruiting women into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
But in the case of Trump-favored, ostensibly women-centric issues that have to be enacted by Congress, the administration has fallen short.
Ivanka Trump’s paid family leave initiative, for example, is at a standstill.
Her plan would use states’ unemployment insurance systems to give six weeks’ paid family leave for new mothers and fathers working at companies that don’t already provide it. She’s having trouble getting Republicans and Democrats to give their support.
What’s more, conservative women’s groups are at odds with the policy.
Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly was one of Trump’s earliest backers. Now, in the year following her death, the forum’s executive director, Tabitha Walter, says she isn’t on board with the first daughter’s initiative, calling federal maternity leave “somewhat degrading” to women to suggest that they need federally mandated assistance.
“That may have the opposite effect of what she intends,” she said in a phone call with IJR.
“Unfortunately, I think that some of Ivanka Trump’s initiatives may hinder women’s livelihood in the U.S. There are consequences when you bring family matters into work — and work matters into your family. And [Phyllis] Schlafly had said that employee decisions that preference family over jobs come with a price.”
The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), meanwhile, recommended providing tax credits to small businesses for introducing family leave policies.
But the White House’s push for more support by conservative women and women at large has been less about reeling back Trump’s harsh campaign trail rhetoric toward women (he did trash talk Mika Brzezinski’s appearance in June on Twitter) and more about finding universally appealing, public relations-friendly talking points.
There have been listening sessions with military wives, female entrepreneurs, and anti-human trafficking groups.
Ivanka Trump has told Saudi Arabian women her goal is “to help empower women in the United States and around the globe.”
And President Trump himself even acknowledged the unique barriers faced by female entrepreneurs.
The optics-heavy push for women’s empowerment makes more sense considering it’s less about Ivanka Trump’s passion projects and more about the fact that 54 percent of women voted for Hillary Clinton — while 42 percent picked Trump in 2016.
And although Republican women proved to be a steady base of support last November (exit polls showed 88 percent of them chose Trump), the conservative women’s groups that represent them in Washington are still lukewarm toward some of the president’s agenda items and are divided among themselves.
But the administration is working hard to court them for approval.
Penny Young Nance, the CEO of the Christian conservative group Concerned Women for America, said her network was stunned when the 2004 Access Hollywood tape of Trump talking about grabbing women by their genitals was released. But she cast her vote for Trump nonetheless, calling the decision a binary choice.
“When push came to shove and people went into the voting booth, they strongly believed in one among the two choices,” she said. “You don’t just vote for one person. You vote for an entire system of government.”
These days, Nance says she has incredible access to the White House.
Aside from meetings with the vice president on health care and photo-ops with the president on his signing of a bill that could shift funding away from Planned Parenthood, the group has liaised with the Justice Department and Health and Human Services.
Other coalitions of conservative women haven’t been as warm to welcome the president.
“What really hit me was how he spoke to Megyn Kelly, and I could not believe that that was who the Republican Party was going to choose to represent them,” Jennifer Lim, the co-founder of Republican Women for Progress (RWFP) said in an interview.
Lim co-founded the group as Republican Women for Hillary, after she and other conservatives in Washington, D.C., found too many points of contention with Trump’s character and policies. Today, RWFP hosts dozens of state chapters and is gearing up for the midterm elections by supporting Republican candidates that track more closely with their beliefs.
The opinions of all of these women’s groups clearly matter to the Trump administration, because despite the difference in opinion over policy, Walter said she has also been regularly meeting with federal agencies on pro-life and immigration issues since Trump was sworn in. This November, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway will speak at the IWF’s annual gala.
But despite these blatant moves to appeal to wider swaths of women, the White House is still sticking to one main line: All issues are women’s issues.
“Everybody wants to put women into a box and say that only women care about one thing,” Sanders said.
“We want a good economy, we want good jobs, we want good education, we want safe neighborhoods, we want a secure country, we want secure borders,” she added. “All the same stuff that men care about I think women care about, too. I think it’s frustrating when they try to say women voters vote on one issue because they don’t.”