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Pundits achieve cable-news stardom after converting into Donald Trump supporters

A number of conservative TV news pundits have thrown their support behind Donald Trump, and have seen their stars rise as a result. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)
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This post has been updated.

Last summer, shortly after Donald Trump launched his angry missile of a campaign with that memorable remark about Mexicans and rapists, Kayleigh McEnany sounded like pretty much every other talking head on cable news.

“I think he said something very unartful, very inappropriate,” she told Don Lemon during a June 29 segment on “CNN Tonight.”

“I'm here to tell you, he's not going to be anywhere near the top five,” McEnany added. “He's not a serious contender within the Republican Party. And I think he made that pretty clear when the most important thing he said in his speech was, ‘I am rich, I am rich,’ repeatedly.”

Today, McEnany sounds very different — both from her earlier self and from better-known conservative commentators such as Karl Rove and S.E. Cupp, who remain highly critical of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. McEnany is now a staunch Trump supporter, a turnaround that has helped make the newly minted Harvard Law School graduate a rising star on CNN, which increasingly relies on her to furnish a perspective that is hard to find among the usual roster of right-leaning pundits.

In fact, she is one of a small handful of commentators — including Jeffrey Lord, Scottie Nell Hughes, Adriana Cohen and Carl Higbie — who have made defending the real estate mogul their niche and in the process made themselves hot commodities.

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For some of these surrogates, their previous statements don’t always square with what they say on behalf of the candidate now, and it can be hard to avoid the perception that they saw an open market for Trump sympathizers and sold out. Not necessarily for money — they aren’t paid by the campaign or, with the exception McEnany and Lord, by the cable channels — but for fame that could eventually lead to a payday and in the meantime represents its own kind of currency.

Hughes hears this charge all the time from fellow conservatives. She insists it’s unfair.

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“I’ll be the first to admit some inconsistency with comments I’ve made in the past,” said Hughes, whose tea party background seemed to make her a natural ally of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a former contender for the GOP nomination. “I’m sure you could go back. Even I sometimes read [old comments] and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I said that.’ But it’s a different time we’re living in, and ultimately we’re going up against Hillary Clinton.”

Hughes is a longtime Trump admirer; she says she applied twice to be a contestant on his reality show, “The Apprentice.” But she didn’t always think of him as presidential material. She recalled interviewing him a few years ago for the Tea Party News Network and asking whether he would ever consider running — for mayor of New York.

About that time, she was writing regularly for Townhall, a conservative news site. When Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) announced in May 2013 that she would not seek another House term, Hughes wrote, “The tea party’s message is bigger than even its most courageous messengers.” Cruz made Hughes’s list of such messengers. (Trump, needless to say, did not.) Her point was that tea party principles are more important than individual people.

But on CNN on Aug. 13, Hughes seemed to make the reverse argument when she explained why a tea party member such as herself would like Trump: “It's very simple. Because Donald Trump represents honesty. Sure, we might not necessarily agree with everything Donald is saying or how he's saying it, but we know he's being honest.” Suddenly, it seemed that a candidate's personal qualities could make up for principled shortcomings.

Hughes said her decision to back Trump was based largely on realistic odds-making; he was the most electable Republican, she thought.

"The ideal candidate usually loses — in 'House of Cards' and in reality," she told me.

Opportunism was not part of her calculus, Hughes said. She has done the unglamorous work of volunteering in a Trump phone bank and noted that much of the attention she receives is negative. A "Saturday Night Live" sketch last month pilloried Hughes as a "full-blown nut job."

"Trust me: This is not an opportunity," she said. "The hate and the friendships I have lost for being a Trump supporter among conservatives have been extremely hurtful. But in the end, I really do believe he is the best for our country."

After we spoke, Hughes called back to make a disclosure: She is in talks with a cable channel about a paid position. She said she's unsure of the status and is letting her agent handle negotiations. This isn't something she's been chasing, Hughes emphasized; she just wanted to mention it, in the interest of transparency and a clear conscience.

Cohen, a Boston Herald columnist and radio host, said her conversion story isn't about anything besides her belief in the candidate, either. She said she likes Trump's outsider status, his disregard for political correctness and his negotiating skills, as well as his record of job creation, his plan to beef up the military and his "America first" approach to foreign policy.

Last fall, Cohen appeared less impressed. In a Sept. 15 column, she described Trump as “the shark who's eating up the media's attention with his daily delivery of verbal grenades and politically incorrect speech.” In the same article, she praised New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, then a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, for a speech in which “he was charismatic and answered every question with real answers, not sound bites.” The “sound bites” line came across as a shot at Trump and mirrored the conventional wisdom about his campaign — that it was short on substance.

Cohen was an occasional guest on CNN, Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network before getting behind Trump; she appeared 15 times on those cable channels between August 2014 and mid-February of this year, according to Nexis transcript archives. (Update: Cohen says the Nexis tally shortchanges her and that she was actually a guest many more times; she ballparks her Fox News appearances at about 70.)

In an email, Cohen described herself as an "in-demand TV and radio commentator" and added "TV producers have told me for years now that I bring in top ratings for their shows; that's one of the many reasons they have me on often."

Cohen was certainly in-demand after declaring her support for Trump. Beginning Feb. 26, the date CNN first identified her as a Trump backer, she racked up 19 appearances on the same three cable channels over the next 29 days.

On March 25, during a live segment on CNN, she brought up a National Enquirer story that alleged multiple extramarital affairs by Cruz — unsubstantiated rumors that the mainstream media had mostly ignored until then. As anchor Kate Bolduan shook her head, Cohen went a step further, asserting on live TV that fellow guest Amanda Carpenter, Cruz's former communications director, had been identified as one of five mistresses.

Cohen has appeared just once on CNN since then; she said she has turned down some opportunities.

Cohen's reduced role only increases the value of someone like McEnany, who consistently hits pro-Trump talking points with polish and composure. It's a job she excels in but one she resisted for a while.

Last fall, McEnany seemed to be warming to Trump — so much so that CNN introduced her as a supporter of the real estate mogul during a segment Sept. 20 and again during two other appearances the next morning. McEnany didn't object to the label. But in a hit on the afternoon of Sept. 21, she rejected the designation: "I actually haven't vowed my support for anyone," she told anchor Brooke Baldwin, who moments earlier had said "Trump is your guy." "I support Ben Carson just like I support Donald Trump," McEnany added.

McEnany did not respond to multiple interview requests.

CNN didn't identify her as a Trump backer again until Feb. 2. In the intervening months, she occasionally expressed reservations about him. On Oct. 20, she said she still wasn't ready to commit to Trump but that he ranked among her top-three choices. On Jan. 5, she criticized Trump for saying — falsely — that Cruz used to have a Canadian passport.

It's the only thing he can find on Ted Cruz. And this should tell us a lot about Ted Cruz. When folks go to attack him, they have nothing to attack him on. This is someone who went to the Senate, who was ferocious in his conservative values, who stood up to Mitch McConnell, who has put forth every conservative principle, voted right on every single issue. There is nothing you can attack Ted Cruz on.
Donald Trump is grasping at straws because there is simply no way to topple him. That's why you see people like Marco Rubio lying — outright lying — about Ted Cruz's immigration record. You can't attack this man because he's been on the right side of every political issue.

McEnany couldn't abide Trump's Canadian line of attack, but a month later — after embracing the pro-Trump mantle — she vigorously defended his use of the word "pussy" to describe Cruz. The vulgar insult didn't really count, she argued, because he was merely repeating what a woman in the crowd at a rally in Manchester, N.H., had shouted. ("Shout it out," Trump had encouraged.)

"You don't have a problem with that, as a woman?" Lemon asked McEnany.

She started to respond — "I don't have a problem with that because ..." — but was cut off by other panelists. When the bickering subsided, McEnany successfully deflected attention away from Trump's latest rhetorical controversy and made a point she has reiterated many times since.

"We are sitting here talking about this on the panel," McEnany said. "Americans care about ISIS. They care about closing the border. They care about remedying the bad trade deals. That's why they support Donald Trump."