WASHINGTON — There’s an old maxim about the press, sometimes attributed to H.L. Mencken: “Journalism is to politician as dog is to lamp post.” That’s why eyebrows were raised last night when the dogs hosted a party for a lamp post, with some of journalism’s loudest barkers gathering for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the outgoing White House press secretary.
Maybe it was a case of Stockholm syndrome. Certainly, it was an odd sight: journalists turning out to raise a glass to the unflinching defender of a president who accuses the media of being “the enemy of the people” or worse.
But most of the journalists who gathered at Rare Steakhouse, a dim surf-and-turf joint two blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue, had no qualms. So what if Ms. Sanders told Robert Mueller’s investigators that she delivered false statements to reporters, and that she went 100 days without giving a press briefing?
For the demoralized herd of reporters who have spent the last two years being smacked around by Ms. Sanders, her last hurrah was just another happy-hour opportunity to source up.
“I’m really happy with the turnout,” said Anita Kumar, a White House correspondent for Politico, who hosted the party with Francesca Chambers, a White House correspondent for Dailymail.com. Ms. Kumar added that “with this administration, we haven’t had a lot of opportunities to interact with the people we cover.”
By 7 p.m., some 50 people piled in, knocking back beer and bar nuts. Presidential punching bags from The Washington Post and Reuters mingled with Trumpian camarilla including Hogan Gidley, the deputy press secretary, and Mercedes Schlapp, the director of strategic communications.
Jonathan Karl, the chief White House correspondent for ABC News, said that “the job of a White House correspondent is to talk to White House officials.”
Still, some fretted about the optics. The tango between the press and politicians in the capital is always complex, but that relationship borders on toxic in the Trump era. Even for clubby Washington, it could be a bad look to clink glasses for a woman who rode shotgun for a president who refers to the media with a Stalinist epithet.
“You’d better not say I was here,” one reporter said. “Me either,” said another. When asked why it was appropriate for journalists to attend a party for Ms. Sanders, John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for Fox News, said, “I need to clear any comments with my media relations team.”
And yet, it’s not unheard-of for the White House press corps to pour one out for the top flack. When reached by phone, Ari Fleischer, the press secretary to President George W. Bush until 2003, said there was nothing abnormal about the ritual.
Mr. Fleischer, who helped sell the “cakewalk” Iraq war by saying things like “there is already a mountain of evidence that Saddam Hussein is gathering weapons for the purpose of using them,” recalled reporters wheeling an actual cake into the briefing room to celebrate with him on his final day in the role.
“I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a going-away party for the press secretary,” he said. “It’s what polite people do with each other. You can still clash. You can still differ. You can still be professionals who hold the administration to account and go to a goodbye party together.”
Elsewhere in the bar, Jon Decker, a White House correspondent with Fox News Radio, leaned against a raw bar as news footage of E. Jean Carroll, who recently accused President Trump of sexual assault, flashed on the television tuned to CNN above the bar.
Erik Wemple, a media critic for The Washington Post, who in an opinion article earlier this week described Ms. Sanders as “awful,” bounced around in a short-sleeve tropical shirt, seeking comments for his column.
Ms. Sanders, who slipped in around 7:15 p.m., stood by the bar and was in no mood to give a quote.
Wearing a tangerine-colored dress and beige heels, she smiled often and seemed relaxed in the company of her former adversaries. She took selfies with lower-level administration staffers, but refused to discuss, on the record, matters even as mundane as the varietal of wine she’d been sipping.
Given her pugnacious presence from the podium, was she puzzled that a pack of journalists were so eager to see her off in style? After an instinctual “no comment,” Ms. Sanders gestured to the scrum and then said: “Look, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”