President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that Sanders will return to her home state of Arkansas and floated the possibility of a gubernatorial run for the White House press secretary. Speaking at an event later Thursday afternoon, Trump praised her as a “warrior.”
The descriptor reflected both the combative nature of Sanders’ tenure and extent to which Trump has admired her pugnacity amid a fire hose of controversies. Her departure leaves Trump without one of his chief public defenders, longest-serving advisers and closest aides.
The announcement of her exit, which coincided with the 94th day since she last appeared at the podium, also cast a spotlight on the scope of change she ushered in, offering a vanishing degree of accountability to the position.
Speaking at an event shortly after the announcement, Sanders called her role “the honor of a lifetime” and an experience she “will treasure forever.”
“I couldn’t be prouder to have the opportunity to serve my country and particularly to work for this President,” Sanders said after Trump asked her to join him at the lectern. “I’ve loved every minute — even the hard minutes.”
Sanders chose her date of departure “well in advance” of Thursday’s announcement, one White House official told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
In private conversations in recent weeks, Sanders has floated running for Arkansas governor, according to two people familiar with the talks. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was re-elected just last year, so unless he steps down early — or is appointed to something — the governor’s office in Little Rock isn’t open until January 2023.
She has told colleagues and friends that she thinks running for office would be a good next move for her, instead of taking a television job upon her departure.
Her resignation came on the 94th consecutive day without a White House briefing, the longest stretch of time without a briefing since briefings became a daily, televised occurrence more than two decades ago. In the past 300 days, only eight briefings were held, according to CNN’s tally.
But while Sanders stepped away from the White House briefing room podium, she remained a reliable public face of the administration on television networks, defending the President through the controversies that frequently engulfed his administration and amidst the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
In that role, Sanders stood by Trump on nearly every front, from Trump’s attacks on the press and his hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with him to the administration’s zero-tolerance family separation at the border and his controversial comments about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Trump has denied the affairs.
Sanders public-facing role and her close relationship with Trump also led her behind closed doors, where she sat for an interview with Mueller’s investigators.
Trump and Sanders developed a close relationship after one of his closest confidants, then-White House communications director Hope Hicks, left the West Wing last February. The President, who was the one that recommended Sanders stop the daily press briefings, regularly praised her in private, bragging to others about how she defended him in television appearances and scuffled with the press.
Her colleagues often compared their relationship to Trump’s bond with Hicks, noting that while Sanders wasn’t considered a family member like Hicks was, she was the next closest thing.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Jeff Zeleny and Allie Malloy contributed to this report.