For anyone following the burgeoning controversy over Corey Lewandowski’s role at CNN, this morning has been quite confusing. Earlier today, Mediaite’s J.D. Durkin published a sure-sounding breaking post reporting that, according to his sources, the former Donald Trump campaign manager had been suspended from his role as a talking head at CNN, where he has worked since June 23, in the wake of new reporting suggesting that, at least as of August, he never left the Trump campaign’s payroll.
But not so fast – media reporters who tried to confirm the story ran into very strong denials from CNN, as summed up by The Hill’s Joe Concha:
If Lewandowski had been suspended, there’s little reason CNN would then tell a bunch of media reporters he hadn’t been. It seems safe to say that, in all likelihood, he’ll be on-air this afternoon, and that Durkin is likely considering a heated call or two with his sources.
But whatever Lewandowski’s immediate fate, the media-ethics controversy over his presence at CNN, which has been brewing for months, isn’t going away. Back in June, you may recall, he was fired during a period of serious tumult within the Trump campaign. For some reason, he had developed a reputation as a loose cannon and a source of dysfunction within Trump Tower, and the campaign was making a desperate effort to professionalize itself on the fly. At the time, shedding Lewandowski seemed like an important part of that effort (an effort that has since taken it some interesting and questionable places).
Immediately after his sacking, Lewandowski made a beeline for nearby CNN, where he began his gig as a regular on-air election-season contributor. CNN was instantly criticized for bringing him onboard — observers pointed out that since Lewandowski had signed a non-disparagement clause when he worked for the campaign, he wouldn’t be able to criticize Trump on-air without potentially getting sued. This is an unusual situation: It’s one thing to be a shill whose only role is to endlessly offer public support for one candidate or party, but it’s another to be unable to criticize a candidate, even in the abstract, because of a preexisting legal agreement.
That wasn’t all, though: When Lewandowski was canned, he also received a severance deal, meaning that at the same time Lewandowski was appearing on CNN to offer his by-legal-necessity-one-sided thoughts on the Trump campaign, he was getting paid by that campaign. It took CNN a few weeks, but it did eventually begin disclosing that Lewandowski was receiving severance from the Trump campaign. (His on-air persona, meanwhile, has been about what you would expect: Early last month he wondered aloud on CNN whether maybe President Obama isn’t from the United States.)
The ethical questions have only grown, largely because of what appears to be a continuing close relationship, at least financially, between Lewandowski and his political consulting firm and the Trump campaign. First, the Washington Post reported last month that according to campaign-finance filings, two weeks after being fired — that is, well into his CNN gig — Lewandowski received his regular $20,000 monthly payment from Trump HQ. Then, last night, the Post revealed that he again received this monthly haul in August. (In a statement to Durkin, Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks claimed that the Trump campaign is continuing to pay Lewandowski solely out of contractual obligation, and that these payments “are in no way compensation for services rendered.” But as Gabriel Sherman and others have reported, Lewandowski appears to still be taking an active role in advising the campaign.)
With news of Lewandowski’s CNN suspension (apparently) greatly exaggerated, that marks two full months and counting in which he has effectively been a paid Trump consultant while simultaneously opining on the campaign for CNN in the guise of an ex-staffer — one who can’t openly criticize the campaign — and receiving a severance package. It is, as Lewandowski’s former (?) boss might say, a pretty sweet deal.