Here’s what I think of CNN hiring Donald Trump’s campaign manager, seemingly seconds after he was fired:
This is not a knock on Corey Lewandowski, who handled his dismissal with class, though he has plenty of detractors. It’s the question of what CNN is getting for its money.
There is a long tradition of networks hiring former political operatives and ex-candidates, but it used to be that they waited some decent interval before having them don a quasi-journalistic hat. That is now a thing of the past.
But does a network want someone who is still flacking for his or her former boss?
In an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash before the network hired him, Lewandowski made clear that he never plans to utter a negative syllable about Trump. And in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett once he was on the payroll, Lewandowski again fiercely defended Trump on every question.
When Burnett asked if he was “angry” about getting the boot, Lewandowski said:
“I don't. I feel honored. I feel honored to have been part of changing the American political system for the rest of our lives and hopefully so much further. And the Trump family has been so good to me and my family.”
Even if he wanted to be critical of Trump, Lewandowski signed a non-disclosure agreement that prevents that. He can’t defame or disparage the guy, as Burnett pointed out. So CNN is not getting even a semblance of independent analysis.
For his part, Lewandowski told Burnett: “I’m a guy who calls balls from strikes. I'm going to tell it like it is.”
Some critics have focused on the grabbing incident involving Michelle Fields (where misdemeanor charges were dropped) or other instances of Lewandowski playing hardball with the press. Some CNN staffers are upset by the hire, and some of the network’s alumni have lamented the move on Facebook.
One positive sign is that CNN has been trying to bring in more conservative voices under President Jeff Zucker, who has acknowledged that the network leaned left in the past.
But I think there are more fundamental issues involving the nature of punditry and the perception that candidates, consultants and commentators are a bunch of indistinguishable insiders.
On the candidate front, the tradition goes back to the 1990s, when CNN kept hiring Pat Buchanan in between his presidential runs, helping to keep him in the public eye.
In 2012, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum left the Fox payroll to run for president, and last year Mike Huckabee did the same thing.
Veterans of the Bush White House are highly visible on the air, such as Nicolle Wallace at MSNBC and Karl Rove and Dana Perino and at Fox. You don’t expect them to attack their former boss, but the political world has moved on with George W. Bush staying out of the limelight, and Jeb’s candidacy sparked mixed emotions among the Bushies.
Tony Snow went from Fox to the post of White House press secretary, then was hired by CNN before his death. Sarah Palin joined Fox after her VP run.
During the Obama administration, MSNBC snatched up David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, and CNN hired Van Jones and, briefly, Jay Carney and Stephanie Cutter. Some disagreed with the president on occasion, and Axelrod, for one, found MSNBC too partisan and jumped to CNN.
CNN also hired two prominent Clintonites, James Carville and Paul Begala, and Carville later did a stint at Fox.
Is there a statute of limitations on past partisanship? It’s been almost two decades since ABC’s George Stephanopoulos worked for Bill Clinton, but that connection resurfaced when he was found to have donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation, especially in the context of Hillary’s presidential run.
MSNBC was also quick off the mark in hiring Rick Tyler a couple of days after Ted Cruz dropped him as communications director. Tyler remained largely supportive of Cruz and has been no fan of Trump.
Lewandowski, who had a no-BS style with the press, is the first of the Trump loyalists to jump to cable news. What will he do when Trump has a bad week or makes a big mistake? Will he sound like the campaign manager in exile or a commentator with special insight into the Republican nominee?
For the moment, at least, Lewandowski seems in no danger of going rogue, and CNN is taking a beating for giving him a platform in record time.