MEDIA
08/14/2017 06:22 pm ET

CNN's Charlottesville Coverage Shows Its Deep Bench Of Pro-Trump Pundits

Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are gone, but a half-dozen reliably supportive paid commentators appeared.

Jack Kingston tried to defend the seemingly indefensible Saturday night on CNN.

Hours earlier, the president of the United States, who has personally attacked hundreds of celebrities, media figures and politicians, proved unwilling to directly condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists, one of whom drove into a group of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and injuring 19 others. 

Kingston, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, argued that President Donald Trump’s initial response, which vaguely faulted “many sides,” was “very strong.” And he objected to criticism of Trump’s comments, telling Symone Sanders, a former press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that he was sorry the president didn’t use “some buzzwords like ‘white supremacist.’” Sanders, who is black, responded that “white supremacy is not a buzzword; it is real.”

Sanders also tangled Monday morning with Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and onetime Trump critic who later backed the Republican’s presidential candidacy. Cuccinelli dismissed the importance of the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, and as the conversation grew heated, he told Sanders to “shut up.”

Kingston and Cuccinelli are both CNN commentators and part of at least a dozen paid contributors on the network who are reliably supportive of the president. While many prominent Republicans criticized Trump’s comments over the weekend as insufficient, paid CNN commentators like radio host Ben Ferguson and former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer touted the president’s strength and clarity.

The CNN pundits’ responses weren’t monolithic. Scott Jennings, a former Bush White House official who is broadly supportive of Trump, argued that the president’s comments were not adequate. And some commentators who defended Trump’s initial response also demonstrated flexibility and a willingness to acknowledge fair criticism ― a departure from the unrestrained boosterism of Kayleigh McEnany and Jeffrey Lord, the latter of whom once compared the president to Martin Luther King Jr.

The uproar over Trump’s Charlottesville remarks was the first extended cable news controversy without CNN’s two most visible pro-Trump pundits. McEnany resigned from the network last week, then appeared in a propagandistic “Real News” video for the Trump re-election campaign before being named spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. CNN severed ties with Lord on Thursday after he tweeted a Nazi salute at a progressive activist he accused of engaging in fascist behavior.

Trump’s candidacy blew up the old model of cable news punditry, in which liberal and conservative talking heads squared off on the controversy of the moment. Most prominent conservative TV commentators during the 2016 election were squarely in the “Never Trump” camp. So CNN, in an attempt to provide balance and presumably create some on-air fireworks, turned to lesser-known pundits, like McEnany and Lord, to defend even Trump’s most outrageous or fact-free claims.

Lord’s contortions became legendary, such as calling House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) “racist” for condemning Trump’s racist attack on a federal judge. At times, the pair’s claims contradicted CNN’s own reporting and exasperated the network’s hosts, with Anderson Cooper once telling Lord that if the president “took a dump on his desk, you would defend it.”  

CNN president Jeff Zucker has long justified the network hiring pro-Trump pundits during the campaign ― including, most controversially, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who left the network shortly after the 2016 election. 

In April, Zucker described the pro-Trump chorus as “characters in a drama” playing out on the network. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,’” Zucker said. “But you know what? They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.”

Indeed, “Saturday Night Live” parodied McEnany, and Lord’s unlikely celebrity status was on display during the Republican National Convention, as well-wishers, like then-Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon, paid tribute. (Bannon also called Lord on Thursday after the news broke of his departure.)

Management quickly severed ties with Lord on Thursday afternoon as he rode in a CNN-sponsored car from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives and cares for his 98-year-old mother, to the network’s studios in New York. Lord had called Media Matters “fascist” before, including in a column Thursday morning. But CNN deemed it “indefensible” that he directed a “Sieg Heil” at Media Matters’ president on Twitter.

Lord told HuffPost on Friday that CNN was “terrific,” yet expressed concern in an interview that the network’s objective may be “to get rid of all the Trump people.”

“I hope they replace me and Kayleigh with somebody,” he said. 

CNN employs at least a dozen pundits who, to varying degrees, can be identified as pro-Trump: Kingston, Cuccinelli, Ferguson, Jennings, Bauer, former Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller, former Trump adviser Stephen Moore, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Republican strategist Alice Stewart, former Trump campaign official David Urban, talk radio host John Phillips, former Bush White House staffer Paris Dennard and former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker.

The aforementioned can’t always be counted on for knee-jerk defenses of Trump’s latest offense. For instance, Stewart recently criticized Trump’s decision to launch a sexist Twitter attack on MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski.

Still, several quickly hit the air in recent days to defend Trump’s Charlottesville comments amid widespread bipartisan criticism. Ferguson, the first pro-Trump pundit to appear on CNN after Trump’s Saturday remarks, argued the president was “very strong in his words,” and also placed blame during a segment the next hours on “both sides.”

Ana Navarro, a CNN Republican commentator and frequent Trump critic, pushed back aggressively. She told Ferguson that Trump ”doesn’t have the spine or the guts to call out the white supremacists in America today, and I am not going to defend that, I don’t care what party he is.”

During the 6 p.m. hour,  Bauer said Trump’s remarks were “bold” and “very clear and precise.” On Monday, Dennard called Trump’s response “very strong and very good.”

But even some of CNN’s Trump defenders acknowledged validity in the criticism. Ferguson and Bauer on Sunday, and Dennard on Monday, suggested Trump should directly mention “white supremacy” ― not because he was wrong to initially omit the word, but due to the public outcry. (On Monday afternoon, Trump finally did.)

Jennings, who was recently considered for a senior role in the White House, said Saturday afternoon that the speech was not the president’s “best effort,” and lacked ”the absolute moral clarity that we need from the president of the United States at times like this.”

The conservative pundit faulted the president for his “failure to acknowledge the racism, failure to acknowledge the white supremacy, failure to acknowledge the people marching around with Nazi flags on American soil.”

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