The intersection of media and political activism has never gotten quite this crowded. The recent release of campaign financials produced an interesting revelation from Team Trump — they paid former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski $20K for “strategy consulting,” despite his contract as a commentator with CNN:
CNN commentator and former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was paid $20,000 in August by the campaign for what it described as “strategy consulting,” raising anew the conflict of interest issue that has dogged the cable network’s hiring of Lewandowski.
CNN has said previously that Trump’s payments to Lewandowski and his consulting firm were “severance” for his employment by Trump. It began introducing his appearances on the air last month by mentioning that he receives severance from Trump.
But the payments continued in August, according to Trump’s campaign expenditure filing released Tuesday night. The description used by Trump’s campaign in the filing — “strategy consulting” — also suggested that Lewandowski is playing a more active and current role in the campaign than “severance” would suggest.
Media critics thought that continuing severance payments already constituted an insurmountable conflict of interest for paid political analysts. The amount of cash and the description of its use creates even more grist for critics of CNN. So will the declaration by Team Trump that Lewandowski will continue to draw a salary until well after the campaign concludes, calling it a contractual obligation:
“The campaign will continue to honor its contract with Mr. Lewandowski, which stipulates he will be paid through the end of the year,” Trump press secretary Hope Hicks told The Washington Post Wednesday. “These payments are in no way compensation for services rendered.”
The Post reported that Lewandowski was paid $20,000 in August for “strategy consulting,” in addition to being paid by CNN for appearing on the channel. The description of the payment as “strategy consulting” appeared to contradict CNN’s claim that Lewandowski had been being paid by the Trump campaign only for severance.
The conflict seems pretty obvious. Whether or not Lewandowski believes what he tells audiences, it’s clear that he has a financial interest in not angering Trump — a man not exactly known for his tolerance of criticism, especially from underlings. While that might not temper Lewandowski’s opinions (by all accounts he’s a true Trump believer), it certainly gives lots of reasons for viewers to question his sincerity.
A CNN spokeswoman just told me Corey Lewandowski has NOT been suspended by CNN. "He will be on our air later today.”
— Ryan Parker (@TheRyanParker) September 21, 2016
Should he be? Allahpundit mulled over the differences between Lewandowski and Sean Hannity, concluding that the former’s status with CNN was a clear conflict of interest. Perhaps a better comparison would be with Paul Begala, a former Bill Clinton campaign strategist and White House adviser — or George Stephanopoulos, who went from Clinton White House insider to straight-news anchor and debate moderator in record time. No one assumes that either Stephanopoulos or Begala are unbiased, especially when it comes to the Clintons, although ABC News and Stephanopoulos pretend so. Begala’s around because he’s colorful, has interesting things to say, and a long track record in politics that makes his opinions salable for CNN.
But Begala isn’t getting paid by the Clintons any more, either, which means that there’s at least the possibility of actual criticism and statements-against-interests about Hillary. The same is theoretically true of Stephanopoulos, although his status as a Clinton Foundation donor raises questions about his very different role on air at ABC from Begala’s. (It’s why ABC committed that Stephanopoulos would not host political debates this cycle.) If Lewandowski has an income stream that relies on the relative health and good fortune of Team Trump — and the reported non-disclosure agreement to boot — then the chance of getting a serious analysis from Lewandowski that cuts against Trump’s interests approaches zero. In effect, he’s basically a campaign surrogate that draws a salary from the news organization, which raises other questions about CNN’s sanity.