WASHINGTON — When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was turned away from a restaurant with her family over the weekend, conservatives across the country rallied to her defense, heaping abuse on the trendy farm-to-table spot for snubbing President Trump through his spokeswoman.
But one powerful voice in Ms. Sanders’s camp, Mr. Trump himself, took his time in offering his support to a top aide who has become one of the most recognizable lightning rods over his policies and false claims. He waited 48 hours before writing a Twitter post criticizing the appearance of the eatery’s exterior, which he called “filthy” and indicative of a “dirty” establishment. He called Ms. Sanders a “fine person.”
The episode — and the president’s uncharacteristically tepid, delayed response — pointed up a double-edged dynamic that seems to plague nearly everyone in Mr. Trump’s inner circle and has recently begun to take its toll on Ms. Sanders: Even as her vigorous defenses of the president’s misstatements and her own obfuscations during White House briefings have eroded her public credibility, her stock with Mr. Trump has begun to sink.
In recent days, Mr. Trump has asked people privately what they think of Ms. Sanders — an indication, they say, that the press-obsessed president has begun souring on her. He has also told her, before she heads out to the lectern in the briefing room, that he is “going to grade” her televised performances. (People who have heard Mr. Trump make the threat say it is in jest.)
Ms. Sanders has been under a more watchful eye from her boss since the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 27, when she remained in her seat during a scathing roasting from a comedian who called her a liar. Mr. Trump has told people in the West Wing that he thought Ms. Sanders should have walked out, as another White House official, Mercedes Schlapp, chose to do in a showy display.
Ms. Sanders has at times reminded colleagues that she will not be in the job forever, according to West Wing officials. But those officials said it was close to impossible to think of what Mr. Trump would do for a replacement if Ms. Sanders left. Her top deputy, Raj Shah, is not widely viewed as a potential successor because he is not expected to remain at the White House long term, either.
And while the president is known to be fickle about his staff, he also shies away from confrontation and does not relish firing people. His preference is to make life uncomfortable for underlings with whom he is unhappy, creating an awkward dynamic that lasts until they quit.
Mr. Trump is already facing staffing challenges at a precarious moment in a midterm election year, when previous presidents were striving to keep their White House staffs stable. But in the coming weeks Mr. Trump will lose Marc Short, his legislative affairs chief who plans to leave in July, and Joseph W. Hagin, his deputy chief of staff for operations who announced this month that he was retiring.
John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, has already experienced the cycle that Ms. Sanders is grappling with. Mr. Kelly has seen his reputation as an apolitical four-star general diminished by association with Mr. Trump, and felt the chill of a president who privately expresses dissatisfaction with him on a regular basis.
Some of Ms. Sanders’s colleagues said they were impressed with her longevity working for a mercurial and perennially unsatisfied president. They also noted that at other times, Mr. Trump has praised Ms. Sanders publicly and to her colleagues.
But several White House aides described the mood in the West Wing as the most tense it has been in months. A constant sense of dread has seeped into the daily grind, according to interviews with a half-dozen current and former staff members who are still in contact with people at the White House. Ms. Sanders’s rejection by the Red Hen, the restaurant in Lexington, Va., only added to a feeling of unease.
For Ms. Sanders, the affront from an eating establishment that takes issue with Mr. Trump’s policy was galling enough to elicit a post from her official Twitter account naming the restaurant, which some government ethics specialists called a breach of rules that bar federal employees from endorsing — and, by extension, singling out for criticism — a private business.
“Healthy debate on ideas and political philosophy is important, but the calls for harassment and push for any Trump supporter to avoid the public is unacceptable,” Ms. Sanders said at the beginning of her briefing on Monday.
Asked about her decision to use her White House Twitter account to complain about her treatment, Ms. Sanders said she was responding in her official capacity to dozens of press inquiries about what had become a “news of the day” story, the way she would on any other topic.
The episode quickly became a test for the nation’s political divide, with some progressive activists offering effusive praise for the restaurant and conservative stalwarts denouncing the owner’s actions.
It was not the first time that Ms. Sanders had become a flash point for heated partisan debate.
Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary under George W. Bush, said Ms. Sanders’s image had been boosted by her public shunning at the hands of progressives, both at the Red Hen and as the butt of brutal jokes by Michele Wolff, the comedian at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
“People see her being attacked in very public ways and ways which seem to go beyond the pale, and it generates sympathy and drives people who may not like her, or Trump, to question whether it’s taking things too far,” Mr. Fleischer said.
He said the attacks on Ms. Sanders’s credibility are a product of the position she holds, including her defense of Mr. Trump’s false assertions.
“People expected her to say, ‘There’s no evidence of what the president said’ — of course she can’t say that,” Mr. Fleischer said. “It’s more a reflection of the things that her boss says that sometimes are hard to defend, and then the expectation that she is going to stand there and poke holes in it, which is not her job.”