Corey Lewandowski is thriving. After his June firing from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he caught on almost immediately as a political commentator with CNN. Such a sinecure can easily pay in the six figures, a pay day supplemented by Lewandowski’s ongoing severance payments from the Trump campaign.
Cheri Jacobus doesn’t have those kinds of luxuries. She’s a longtime talking head, a Republican strategist and founder of Capitol Strategies PR. As the presidential campaign cycle got underway, she was hoping to parlay her years of experience on cable news into just the sort of contract that Lewandowski has snared. It didn’t happen, thanks in part to Lewandowski himself.
In a Jan. 26 appearance on CNN, Jacobus opined on Trump’s boycott of the then-upcoming Fox News debate in Iowa. The candidate’s bluster didn’t impress Jacobus, who called him a “bad debater.” “What he’s really afraid of is up, being up there facing the voters, facing the press, and facing his opponents,” said Jacobus. “Because at these debates Donald Trump and some of these interviews, such as with Wolf Blitzer yesterday, he comes off like a third-grader faking his way through an oral report on current affairs.”
One cable-news blast begets another. The next day, Lewandowski denounced Jacobus in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “This is the same person, I’ll just tell ya, who came to the office on multiple occasions trying to get a job from the Trump campaign, and when she wasn’t hired she went off and was upset by that,” said Lewandowski.
Things escalated the next week. On the night of Feb. 2, Jacobus appeared again on CNN to chat with host Don Lemon about Trump. It was a timely topic, considering that the night before, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had edged out Trump in the Iowa caucuses; New Hampshire loomed. People were paying attention. Chatter in the segment drifted toward Trump’s much-hyped approach to financing his campaign — with his own riches, he liked to boast.
I don't believe I have been given any credit by the voters for self-funding my campaign, the only one. I will keep doing, but not worth it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2016
Facing off with pro-Trump commentator Kayleigh McEnany, Jacobus riffed: “Look, Donald Trump also had a super PAC that he started out with, and he lied about it, and they had to quickly shut it down. He got $100,000 from his daughter’s in-laws for that super PAC and he attended two fundraisers for that super PAC. And also another reason he shut it down is when he went to the three big billionaire donors . . . they turned him down. . . . So this business about bragging that he’s self-funding is only because he went to the traditional Republican money, and they didn’t want him.”
Via Twitter, Trump himself left little doubt after the segment about where he stood:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2016
On cable news, dust-ups of this sort commonly live to see another day: The pugilists get invited back on air, ratings soar and Mediaite covers the rematch. No such happy outcome has materialized for Jacobus. Following her stormy appearance and the Twitter-borne slam by Trump, she has disappeared from CNN’s airwaves. Poof!
A Nexis search for guest appearances on CNN for Jacobus turns up nearly 180 hits dating back to 2002, with a significant tally on the 2016 campaign alone. See the chart below for her more recent appearances:
What happened here? Who knows: CNN won’t comment on the whole deal. We asked for an interview about the matter, and a CNN rep offered an off-the-record chat with a news executive. We declined.
It’s possible that CNN feels sandwiched between two warring parties. After Trump issued his tweet about Jacobus being a “real dummy,” the career pundit got a lawyer to send a “cease and desist” letter to Lewandowski and the Trump campaign. “By impugning Ms. Jacobus’s status as an objective and serious political commentator, your live-television statements to Morning Joe and follow-up ‘Tweets’ were per se defamatory because they painted her as petty and biased in a profession permitting neither,” reads the letter, which was revealed by Politico. “Any violation of this cease-and-desist demand will be treated in Court accordingly.”
Instead of ceasing and desisting, however, Trump resumed tweeting and insulting. From Feb. 5:
Really dumb @CheriJacobus. Begged my people for a job. Turned her down twice and she went hostile. Major loser, zero credibility!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2016
That message about Jacobus’s alleged credibility problems apparently got through to CNN managers. “She became ‘damaged goods,’ persona non grata, demoted from a network regular . . . to complete oblivion, with almost no television appearances whatsoever,” reads a passage from the April 18 defamation complaint that Jacobus and her lawyer, Jay Butterman, filed against Trump, Lewandowski and the Trump campaign. The complaint also alleges that Jacobus’s appearances on Fox News and Fox Business
News Network dried up, though the situation with those outlets is murkier than with CNN. (A Fox News spokeswoman says that Jacobus has been on air as recently as March.)
The particulars laid out in that complaint raise questions about the Trump-Lewandowski version of events — namely, that Jacobus soured on the Trump scene after getting turned down for a job. In mid-May of last year, according to the lawsuit, a Trump campaign aide sent Jacobus a Facebook message reading, “Would you consider coming to work for us? We need a top notch communications director.” Jacobus asked for a sit-down, which turned into a meeting that included Lewandowski. It went well, leading to a second meeting. That’s where things cratered. “As the subject of the meeting turned to discussion of communications, Lewandowski became increasingly agitated and rude, speaking in a loud voice and seeming to lack control. Lewandowski made several inappropriate remarks, bragging about yelling at Megyn Kelly, a well known journalist . . .”
So Jacobus told the Trump campaign she wasn’t interested in a job, according to her complaint. In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, a source familiar with these events confirmed the factual representations in Jacobus’s complaint.
Incompatibility notwithstanding, Jacobus emerged from her talks with Trump & Co. with some intelligence concerning the campaign’s grand plans. In pumping up the Trump movement, Lewandowski spoke about a pro-Trump super PAC that would help pave the way for the brash real-estate mogul, according to Jacobus. Yet: As Trump barnstormed the primary geography, he commonly boasted that he was financing his own campaign and belittled his opponents for their slimy super PACs. By October, The Post’s Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger had alighted on this classic Trump contradiction — bashing others for something that he himself was planning to do. The Post quoted Jacobus’s recollection of Lewandowski’s pitch: “He mentioned it as part of, ‘This is what’s going on, this is when he plans to announce, the super PAC is in play,’ ” Jacobus told Gold and Hamburger for a piece published Oct. 20.
Such insight into the inner workings of the campaign apparently rankled and embarrassed Trump. “Upon information and belief,” notes the complaint, “Jacobus’ cooperation with this reportage was a source of animus for Trump and his campaign leading to the defamation.”
Who knows how the courts will rule on the defamation question. If the degradation of women on cable news and social media were actionable charges, though, Trump and Lewandowski would be in settlement discussions right now. What they did to Jacobus is essentially what they did to Fox News host Megyn Kelly. To review the broad outlines, Jacobus and Kelly had the nerve to use their knowledge and position to say things that damaged Trump’s campaign. As punishment, they both reaped schoolyard insults — Kelly was a “third-rate” journalist; Jacobus a “real dummy” — and suggestions that their emotions had overwhelmed their rational faculties: for Kelly, her tough debate questions last summer may have been driven by her menstrual cycle, according to Trump; and for Jacobus, well, she just went “hostile” because she was rejected for a job. Former Breitbart journalist Michelle Fields encountered similar attacks after she accused Lewandowski of grabbing her arm after a press event.
That Trump and Lewandowski stand for misogyny is not news. They’ve behaved this way over and over again. What’s news here is the way that CNN has played a facilitating role. What Jacobus said about Trump on Feb. 2 withstands fact-checking: Yes, Trump was ripping other campaigns about super PACs while his campaign was establishing ties to one of its own. Yes, Trump’s daughter’s mother-in-law kicked in money for the super PAC. And yes, Trump appealed unsuccessfully to big-time GOP donors. In grand contrast to the pro-Trump voices on CNN, Jacobus made direct and incontrovertible points.
And look where it got her.
Not that CNN has any contractual obligation to Jacobus whatsoever. She has served as a guest commentator on the network’s airwaves, part of a cable-news serfdom of journalists, publicists and ankle-biters (put the Erik Wemple Blog in that last basket) who will blow up their evenings, weekends and vacations just to say stuff that everyone else has already said. They work for free, the better to enable Fox News, CNN and MSNBC to haul in annual profits of $1.5 billion, $381 million and $227 million, respectively. For Jacobus, the visibility was worth the tradeoffs. Her Capitol Strategies PR is a consultancy that has assisted political campaigns and other groups in getting their messages across. “I’ve been a steady fixture on cable news networks at some level, and that’s been an important part of my marketing,” says Jacobus. “It’s been important that clients see that I’m engaged so that they know what I’m about.”
No one these days is wondering what Lewandowski is about. Just days after his firing from the Trump campaign, Lewandowski signed as a political commentator with CNN, joining McEnany, Jeffrey Lord and now Scottie Nell Hughes to deliver the pro-Trump message. Since coming aboard, Lewandowski has seeded CNN airwaves with the same predictable and absurd defenses of Trump that the candidate himself has so often unfurled. Over the July Fourth weekend, for example, Lewandowski defended a Trump tweet that used a Star of David shape in a meme that depicted Clinton as being awash in dirty cash. Attempting to refute criticism that the tweet was anti-Semitic, Lewandowski called the outrage “political correctness run amok.”
Why would Lewandowski utter such meaninglessness? Perhaps because his close-cropped hair is afire with conflicts of interest. He has signed a confidentiality agreement with Trump, though he’s been crafty in dodging questions as to whether his legal constraints extend to a non-disparagement clause. To judge from his comments since starting as a commentator, he has a non-disparagement clause with a must-praise-agement codicil. Adding to the ethical traffic jam, Lewandowski and Trump share a lawyer defending them against Jacobus’s lawsuit, raising the prospect that Lewandowski is indebted to Trump in yet other ways.
CNN has sustained criticism for hiring Lewandowski. This blog raised several questions about the setup. Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik called Lewandowski a “snake” as he ripped CNN on CNN’s own air during a discussion that was moderated by media critic Brian Stelter. The New York Post reported that there was a “staff revolt” afoot over the hiring; if so, this is one quiet, deliberate and careful little revolt. The Post’s Margaret Sullivan could find no good words for the hire.
Nothing speaks so ill of the move, however, as the relative stations of Jacobus and Lewandowski. She lost her volunteer job for telling the truth on air about Donald Trump. He secured a coveted paying job for sliming people like Cheri Jacobus.
Correction: Original text mislabeled Fox Business Network, as noted.