NEW YORK (AP) — Corey Lewandowski, who debuted as a CNN contributor three days after being fired as Donald Trump’s campaign manager, is hardly the only political operative that a cable news network is paying to talk about politics.
Paul Begala (Bill Clinton’s former aide), David Axelrod (Barack Obama), Karl Rove (George W. Bush), Steve Schmidt (John McCain), Donna Brazile (Al Gore) and Joe Trippi (Howard Dean) all work at either CNN, Fox News Channel or MSNBC.
But the speed of Lewandowski’s switch this week, his background of hostility toward reporters and questions about his loyalty make his hire stand out.
“It’s really an example of a revolving door between the media and politics that is spinning off the hinges,” said Jane Hall, communications professor at American University.
The idea of paying the political professionals already baffles some who follow the news. As one veteran news executive said, “if your goal is to find the truth, why would you be paying people to spin?”
Yet the networks have hours of time to fill and an audience hungry for political talk. The former aides are better positioned than most sources to know what people running a campaign may be thinking, and their contacts may offer inside knowledge. They’re well-versed in quick verbal combat.
Trump’s unexpected success left many of the networks scrambling to find voices who could both understand and reflect what was happening, since many of their usual Republican pundits were surprised and opposed him. The Trump point of view on CNN’s prime time had largely fallen to contributor Jeffrey Lord, who was widely criticized for the ways he defended Trump’s comments on federal judge Gonzalo Curiel.
Lewandowski made a tempting target because he was one of the few Trump insiders with a prominent role to become available for punditry.
There remain doubts about whether his first loyalty will be to his former boss or current employer, and his first appearance on CNN Thursday didn’t lessen them. Lewandowski remains a Trump delegate to the Republican convention from New Hampshire.
It’s common for Trump employees in his businesses and his campaign to sign non-disclosure agreements, and Lewandowski acknowledged doing so. . When asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday, he would not answer whether he had signed an agreement not to disparage Trump.
“People who know me know I’m a very straightforward person,” he said. “I’ll tell you exactly like it is whether you like it or not … That’s not going to change, If something is wrong, I’m going to tell you it’s wrong. If something is right, I’m going to tell people it’s right. There’s nothing that’s going to stop me from telling the truth, in my opinion.”
He then turned a Burnett question about whether he was angry about his sudden firing into a testimonial about Trump’s generosity and leadership skills, and defended the candidate for raising accusations about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton without supporting evidence.
The stilted rookie performance – Burnett even said in an aside, “certainly nothing disparaging there” in response to one of Lewandowski’s answers – raised doubts about his abilities to be more than a predictable Trump cheerleader. He did offer one newsy nugget, saying Trump’s list of vice presidential possibilities had no more than four names.
The political biases of other former aides turned network pundits are easy to detect, too. They were hired in part to express these points of view. But for the most part, the pundits can be counted on to go beyond talking points to illuminate an issue, even if things aren’t going their way.
CNN, however, says there’s a distinction between people it pays as analysts – Axelrod and Gloria Borger, for example – and people who are commentators hired because they represent a particular campaign’s point of view. Amanda Carpenter was a Ted Cruz supporter brought on by CNN, for example, and Sally Kohn backed Bernie Sanders. The network considers Lewandowski in this latter category.
For some journalists, Lewandowski’s pugnacious attitude toward reporters in his job as campaign manager is too fresh. He was charged with misdemeanor battery last spring following a confrontation with a Breitbart News reporter, charges that were later dropped.
MSNBC also talked to Lewandowski about a contributor’s job, but did not make an offer. Fox News Channel said it did not pursue Lewandowski for a job.
CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker may also be trying to make a splash during the ratings lull between the end of primaries and the onset of conventions. Fox News remains the most-watched 24-hour news network.
“It might be that they’re just trying to bring the Trump eyeballs over,” said Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. “They provide ratings just like they provide votes.”
Burnett’s program reached 686,000 viewers on Thursday, slightly down from the 702,000 viewers the night before, the Nielsen company said.