CNN sustained a public relations black eye from critics and commentators last week by adding Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to its stable of paid pundits. The basic complaint: that CNN was handing a megaphone to a man whose candidate, and whose own actions, were consistently hostile to the press, and specifically CNN, during the past year.
But the criticism doesn’t seem to have found much of a home among one interested party: CNN’s own journalists, who in interviews express guarded optimism that Lewandowski could be an asset to the network’s campaign coverage.
“I get the argument that he was a bully” to reporters before Trump fired him early last week, said a prominent staffer, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to alienate their employer. “But I also get why we hired him. There aren’t many people who know more than him about how [Trump’s] campaign thinks and works. That could be very valuable to us over the next few months.”
The knocks on Lewandowski are many: He enforced Trump’s ever-growing blacklist on media organizations whose coverage has displeased the presumptive Republican nominee (including The Washington Post); he confined reporters to a media “pen” during Trump’s campaign events (and once pushed and threatened to blackball a CNN reporter who defied the edict); he physically restrained a reporter, Michelle Fields, who was asking Trump questions after an event in March (he was criminally charged in that incident, although the charges were later dropped); and he reportedly made inappropriate comments to female reporters on the Trump beat.
In addition, he has acknowledged that he signed a nondisclosure agreement with Trump that prevents him from disparaging the candidate or revealing proprietary information about the campaign. That agreement presumably puts some limits on what he might actually reveal to CNN’s viewers about the campaign’s inner workings over the next four months.
All of that could be outweighed, however, by what Lewandowski could bring to one of CNN’s many roundtables, said CNN host Brian Stelter during his Sunday program on media, “Reliable Sources.” Said Stelter: “There are some people that are uncomfortable with the hiring, and there might be some awkward moments in the makeup room. But everyone [he spoke with at CNN] also said they understood the hiring, understood the logic of it.”
CNN’s hiring decision was by no means universally praised. Several CNN journalists who’ve dealt with Lewandowski expressed frustration with the way the network went about signing him. None said they were consulted, and they were told the news moments before it became public.
“While I haven’t heard anything about a revolt, I haven’t heard anything positive from anyone at the company, from people on the ground to some higher-ups,” said one.
Given that the cable networks analyze and discuss the news far more than they actually report it, Lewandowski will be pressed into service over many hours, a senior correspondent said.
The network already has two Trump partisans in its pundit lineup: former Reagan political operative Jeffrey Lord and conservative columnist Kayleigh McEnany. But it needed another to meet the constant demand for Trump surrogates, he added. “There are many baby birds that need feeding” — that is, many programs that want a guest or a panelist to spout Trump’s views, he said.
CNN already employs a number of Democratic partisans — former Obama campaign operatives David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer, former Hillary Clinton aide Patti Solis Doyle and former Bill Clinton political aide Paul Begala. The network also briefly employed former Obama White House press secretary Jay Carney as a commentator after he left the administration in 2014.
One of its commentators, Donna Brazile, was the manager of Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and is vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and a superdelegate to the Democratic convention next month. (Lewandowski will be a Trump delegate at the Republican convention.)
Most other networks “don’t care about having someone on their shows who represents the views of the campaign of the present GOP nominee,” another CNN journalist said. “They just don’t care. And then there’s CNN providing what CNN provides — analysis and diversity of opinion. We’re trying to reflect all sides.”
This journalist was critical of CNN executives only insofar as the little public effort made last week to defend or explain the network’s decision to add Lewandowski to the payroll. (A CNN spokesman declined to comment for this article.)
MSNBC met with Lewandowski and decided against making him an offer because of some of the issues surrounding him, according to an executive at MSNBC.
A further potential benefit to having Lewandowski on the payroll may be in improving CNN’s access to Trump, said a CNN reporter. Although Trump hasn’t been shy about doing interviews on CNN — and CNN hasn’t been stingy in covering his rallies and news conferences — having a former Trump lieutenant can’t hurt when it comes to seeking access to the candidate or resolving issues with his campaign, he said.
One reporter framed his reaction with a sports analogy: “It just seems emblematic of a larger revolving door that’s more and more like coaches becoming sports analysts. . . . So it seemed obvious to me [Lewandowski] would land somewhere.”