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Turmoil at CBS News over Trump aide Mick Mulvaney’s punditry gig

A network executive said they want to hire more Republicans to gain ‘access’ ahead of a ‘likely’ Democratic midterm wipeout

Mick Mulvaney, seen here at the White House in 2020, was hired this week as a paid on-air contributor by CBS News. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

CBS News’s decision to hire former Trump administration official Mick Mulvaney as a paid on-air contributor is drawing backlash within the company because of his history of bashing the press and promoting the former president’s fact-free claims.

But a top network executive seemed to lay the groundwork for the decision in a staff meeting earlier this month, when he said the network needed to hire more Republicans to prepare for a “likely” Democratic midterm wipeout.

“If you look at some of the people that we’ve been hiring on a contributor basis, being able to make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle is a priority because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” CBS News’s co-president Neeraj Khemlani told the staff of the network’s morning show, according to a recording of his comments obtained by The Washington Post. “A lot of the people that we’re bringing in are helping us in terms of access to that side of the equation.”

The reaction from CBS News employees to Mulvaney’s hiring was as chilly as the reaction on social media, where many journalists and political commentators suggested that the network was jeopardizing its long history of journalistic excellence.

In February 2020, while serving as President Donald Trump’s interim chief of staff, Mulvaney said that media coverage of the growing coronavirus pandemic was meant “to bring down the president.” He also infamously defended a Trump administration decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine for political purposes, and predicted in a Nov. 7, 2020, Wall Street Journal opinion column that Trump would gracefully accept electoral defeat.

“I know everyone I talked to today was embarrassed about the hiring,” said a CBS News employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment. The frustration, this person said, was less about Mulvaney’s high-ranking role in the Trump administration and more about the inaccuracy of some of his past comments.

“Everyone is baffled,” said another employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.

A senior CBS News producer addressed the backlash to the Mulvaney hiring on Tuesday by pointing to the 74.2 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2020. (Former CNN president Jeff Zucker made a similar argument to explain his strategy of hiring Trump-boosting commentators between 2016 and 2020.)

The backlash was far more muted, however, when CBS hired another Trump White House veteran, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, as a contributor two weeks ago. One staffer said colleagues saw McMaster’s expertise as valuable for the news audience. McMaster, unlike Mulvaney, has also emerged as a strong critic of Trump’s policies.

The network’s announcement Tuesday of Mulvaney’s appointment mentioned his varied experience as a public servant, first as a member of Congress, then as Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, and then as interim White House chief of staff.

On Tuesday morning, in his first official appearance as a CBS News contributor, Mulvaney’s knowledge of the budget process was called on for a segment about President Biden’s budget proposal. “So happy to have you here,” anchor Anne-Marie Green said. “You’re the guy to ask about this.” Mulvaney said that Biden’s proposal of a minimum tax rate on all American households worth more than $100 million would be “really, really difficult” to implement.

Green introduced Mulvaney as “a former Office of Management and Budget director,” but did not initially specify the administration he worked under. Following the segment, the standards department sent around an internal note reminding staffers that “as we introduce these folks, we must always identify relevant background and biographical information,” specifically referencing the administration a guest worked for as a necessary disclosure.

CBS News is not the first mainstream television news network to face criticism for hiring former Trump officials as paid pundits. In December, CNN faced some backlash for hiring former Trump White House communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin. Far more Trump administration officials, however, have found jobs as paid commentators for conservative-leaning cable networks Fox News Channel, Newsmax and One America News.

“CBS News is continuing to build up its roster of contributors on both sides of the aisle ahead of the midterms and the 2024 election,” a spokesperson said Wednesday.

In the CBS staff meeting earlier this month, morning show host Gayle King replied to Khemlani’s comments about the network hiring more Republicans by noting that her show had hosted Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) that very morning as part of a longtime commitment to providing viewers with a balance of political perspectives.

“I told Senator Thune: ‘We like Republicans. We like rational Republicans here, Senator Thune,’ ” King said, in the recording obtained by The Post.

Khemlani said he would “love” for the network to book House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as a guest, and King agreed.