The middle of this past decade would have been a transitional moment for Donald Trump even if he did not secure a win in the last election. After receiving and turning down the role of a lifetime playing the president in Sharknado 3 in 2015, CNN floated the possibility of a post-election “weekly show,” according to audio of a call between network president Jeff Zucker and Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen that was obtained by Fox News.
“I have all these proposals for him,” Zucker told Cohen in a March 2016 call. “I want to do a weekly show with him and all this stuff.” The offer from a major media executive to a representative of a primary front-runner shows just how unseriously Zucker was taking the Trump candidacy at that point — despite Trump’s domination of the delegate count at the time. But it’s also a glaring ethical concern, one that Zucker appears to be aware of. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk to [Trump] every day,” Zucker says in the call. “I’ve just got to be careful, because, I’ve just got to be careful … I just don’t want him talking about it on the campaign trail.”
Zucker also provided debate advice to a candidate who has consistently been reluctant to prepare for debates. “You know what you should do? Whoever’s around him today should just be calling him a con man all day so he’s used to it, so that when he hears it from [Marco] Rubio, it doesn’t matter,” Zucker said. “‘Hey con man, hey con man, hey con man.’ He thinks that’s his name, you know?” As Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple notes, any of CNN’s 3,000 employees “could have told Zucker not to pass along tips to a presidential campaign.”
The call transcript is just the latest document in the long, strange relationship between Zucker and the billionaire he picked to star in The Apprentice in 2004, launching Trump into another level of stardom. Debuting the audio on his show on Wednesday night, Tucker Carlson rightly criticized Zucker for providing “inside tips on how to navigate the CNN debate from the head of CNN.” However, Carlson has reportedly advised Trump in private on topics ranging from the coronavirus to Iran.