CNN political commentator Jeffrey Lord has the toughest job on all of cable news. In segment after segment after segment, Lord beams in from central Pennsylvania to defend Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican presidential primary. At times that task drives the 64-year-old former Reagan operative into troublesome territory.
An example: Last week at a Trump rally in Rochester, N.H., a man made some off-base claims in a question to the candidate. “We have training camps … where they want to kill us,” said the man, who also claimed that President Obama was a Muslim.
On CNN the following day, Trump’s failure to spot-fact-check this ill-informed soul swelled to MH370 proportions. In a Friday night segment, there was Lord, talking to CNN host Don Lemon in defense of Trump. “I have no idea what [the guy is] talking about with training camps. Does he mean training camps in the Middle East?” asked Lord. “Does he mean places like Islamberg in upstate New York — you know, these controversial places in America that are seen as Muslim training camps?”
The next morning, Lord addressed the same matter. “Was he talking about training camps in this country of which, you know, the FBI investigates all these places? There’s a place in upstate New York that I’m personally familiar with.”
Viewers of CNN, based on Lord’s words, might have concluded that upstate New York is proudly hosting an Islamic State or al-Qaeda training academy. He didn’t make that up; Internet reports about evil Muslim activities in a rural part of New York state called Islamberg are there for the reading. One of them states that recruits at Islamberg are trained in “firearm usage, bomb making, and guerilla warfare.” “Islamberg: A Terror Compound in New York … or Misunderstood Neighbors?” asks a Fox News headline from 2007 — as if the role of the leading cable news network was not to resolve that question before publishing its story.
CBS News did, profiling a community — located in Delaware County, N.Y. — where where members have created “the picture of a traditional and tranquil Islamic community — not of immigrants, but of mostly second- or third-generation Americans hailing from cities like New York.” In fact, it’s a place that sustains threats of violence, rather than generating them: Robert Doggart, a former congressional candidate from Tennessee, was indicted in July for alleged solicitation to torch a mosque in Islamberg, which is the headquarters of the Muslims of America and has been around for more than 30 years.
Capt. James Barnes of the New York State Police’s bureau of criminal investigation tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “There’s been cause for law enforcement to interact with them over the years. Many times it’s from people outside of the area who for whatever reasons are interested in the property and act suspiciously, so the folks who live there call us and that’s generally how we get involved.”
Any terrorism training? “No,” says Barnes. The community has even invited law enforcement officials to come to speak to their youngsters on becoming good citizens. Every so often, says Barnes, he gets inquiries from media organizations asking whether there’s any basis to the Internet stories.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Lord said he didn’t intend to link Islamberg with any nefarious activities — merely to express uncertainty over whether Trump’s questioner might have been referring to Islamberg. “I honestly to this moment have no idea whether he was referring to training camps in the Middle East or whether he was referring to the thing with Islamberg,” says Lord. “I don’t know what’s in there beyond what I see in the news. I just know that it’s controversial.”
The Islamberg moment punctuates a series of death-defying Trump-defending moments that Lord has strung together over the past few months. When:
* Trump criticized candidate Carly Fiorina’s face and subsequently came up with the absurd dodge that he was referring to her “persona,” Lord defended, “Well, you know, as we all know, your face is inseparable from your persona so, you know, I’ll leave it to Donald Trump on that.”
* Fiorina lashed at Trump over the “face” remark — “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said at the CNN debate — Lord opined that Fiorina was being “sexist.”
* Trump came under fire from Vice President Joe Biden, Lord warned participants in the second Republican presidential debate in California: “It is a huge mistake to whack Donald Trump over the head here because his supporters are watching. And this has rapidly become outsiders against the politicians.”
* Trump failed to correct the man in Rochester regarding Obama being a Muslim, Lord ripped, “This is enormous hypocrisy here,” and proceeded to criticize President Obama for having failed to move to fire the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the years leading up to his 2008 presidential run. Obama’s eventual repudiation of Wright, Lord tells us, was “too little and too late.”
* Trump criticized Fox News host Megyn Kelly by saying that in her tough Aug. 6 debate questioning she had “blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever,” many in the media made a certain deduction. One that Lord hammered in the American Spectator: “There was not a word said, not a hint, not a suggestion, that Donald Trump ever said Megyn Kelly asked her lead question of him because she was menstruating.”
For a while there, Lord was mounting these arguments gratis on CNN. As he tells it, Trump in the early weeks of his candidacy had completed an interview with CNNers and got to talking with some big shots about the coverage. Either Trump or an aide, says Lord, expressed concern that CNN featured Jeb Bush-friendly analysis and they suggested that the network seek the input of someone more Trump-friendly. They passed along the name of Lord. “All the sudden the phone goes crazy with CNN requests and I start doing them,” says Lord, who was merely ID’d as a Trump “supporter.”
Perhaps because of his resourcefulness in devising Trump defenses, Lord soon fielded an offer to become a paid CNN political commentator. He racked up more and more defiant appearances. Asked whether he really believes the face-persona arguments and the like on behalf of Trump, Lord replies, “Oh yeah, if my heart weren’t in it, I wouldn’t do it. I genuinely like him. I think he’s terrific. I think he’s a good human being.”
Lord’s belief in Trump has impressed his on-air combatants. Fellow CNNer S.E. Cupp memorably said in a Sept. 10 segment, “I don’t envy Jeffrey having to carry Donald Trump’s decidedly fetid water every day. It’s not an enviable job and he does it very well, but what Donald Trump says is indefensible.”
Such loyalty commonly stems from an employment arrangement or something of the sort. In Lord’s case, however, the affection for Trump requires no disclosures — it happened through journalism. In 2013, Lord wrote a post titled, “Never Ignore Donald Trump,” a refutation of all those pundits who argued that the real estate mogul would never make good on his numerous hints at running for office. “This is a guy from Queens who, while his Dad was successful, took his own dreams and made them real, becoming an American icon — the walking definition of how to make your own American dream your reality,” wrote Lord in the American Spectator, where he is a contributing editor.
That piece received vintage treatment from Trump, who wrote some kind words in black Sharpie on a printed version and shipped it to Lord. “It was complimentary,” says Lord, who notes that the initiative to write in defense of Trump was “entirely my own.” Trump would eventually pick up the phone and ring up Lord, who moved to Camp Hill, Pa., more than a decade ago to care for his parents. Though his father has passed away, his 96-year-old mother remains under Lord’s care; when he goes to the studio for his CNN hits, he drafts friends to help out at home.
When the American Spectator in 2013 honored Trump with the T. Boone Pickens Enterpreneur Award (Lord played no role in the choice, he says), Trump dialed up Lord and asked him if he’d fly down from New York to Washington with him for the ceremony. Yes. Lord drove to Washington, took the train to New York and hopped aboard a Trumpcraft for a very brief flight back down south. During the flight, Trump told Lord he didn’t get the public’s fascination with his hair. “I’m worth $10 billion,” said Trump in Lord’s recollection. “If it’s a toupe, don’t you think I could get a better one?”
Cable news pays an army of commentators to fill airtime and — hopefully — ignite some Internet followup via clever quips or heated arguments whose summation can fit in a Mediaite headline. Though many political commentators have backgrounds with certain candidates or causes, they’re generally called on air to speak about a wide range of candidates or issues. Not so much Lord, who concedes that his appearances have been pretty Trump-centric — a hollow assertion, granted, considering that CNN’s politics coverage in general has been Trump-specific under the leadership of CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. Yet Lord’s job on his numerous CNN hits appears to be to defend the front-runner, yielding the following fairness question: Where’s Ted Cruz’s paid CNN advocate? Where’s Chris Christie’s? Where’s John Kasich’s? Where’s Jeb Bush’s? Oh, well, they have that one covered.
The Erik Wemple Blog sent CNN a few questions about Lord’s mission at CNN. A bland reply came back from a spokesperson: “[H]e is a ‘CNN Political Commentator’ and we do identify him as a Trump supporter often.”
The Lord connection may help to explain why Trump has been hypercritical of Fox News, yet soft on CNN. To every one of his CNN segments Lord carries a credential precious to any 2016 candidate. He worked as associate director for political affairs in the White House of Ronald Reagan from 1985 to 1988. That history weaponizes Lord’s on-air defenses of Trump. “I mean if you’ll recall Ronald Reagan was a public personality for 40 years or more by the time he ran for the presidency,” said Lord on CNN in the wake of Trump’s “blood” comments about Kelly. “They really felt they knew Ronald Reagan and they knew that they could count on him that his word was his bond, etc. I really do think they have that feeling about Donald Trump.”
Weeks later, Lord was actually allowed to step foot in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
CNN has been great for Lord. “I get to have my say and drive people like you crazy and they never blink,” he says of his bosses. He particularly enjoyed an interaction at New York CNN green room during the Fox News Republican primary debate last month. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had said something that prompted conversation among his CNN colleagues. “I can’t tell you what he said but whatever he said … other people in the room disagreed with it and it was all sort of predictably liberal. And I said something different,” recalls Lord, “and Jeff [Zucker] turns around and says, ‘That is why I hired you.’ ”
But for how long has Zucker hired Lord? His contract expires on Dec. 31, says Lord. Could this be a cynical bet by CNN that Trump will flame out in a few months, leaving the network with no need for an in-house supporter? “No,” says Lord.