“Donald Trump has again and again shown himself to be an authoritarian, a tyrant and a bully who’s corrupt and doesn’t deserve to be in the White House,” Sarah Isgur Flores told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on May 16, 2016. Seven months later she was swearing her loyalty to him and his agenda.
Few things better illustrate the empty spectacle of mainstream media grandstanding in the Trump era than CNN’s recent hiring of Flores to help run their 2020 campaign coverage. It’s not just that Flores has no news experience, or that her views are objectionable, though rest assured they are: it took keen-eyed commentators no time to pull up instances of Flores spreading debunked conspiracy theories about Planned Parenthood and grousing about the “liberal media,” including her new employer — or as she calls it, the “Clinton News Network.”
It’s also a fact that in hiring a partisan political operative, CNN has handed the running of news operations, which presumably is still meant to be about speaking truth to power, to someone devoted to skirting ethical lines in the service of that very power.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Bad Statistics
Flores was the deputy campaign manager for former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s presidential run in 2016, the most notable feature of which was the brazen way it made a mockery of campaign finance laws. FEC rules forbid campaigns from coordinating with Super PACs, the vehicle through which wealthy donors are allowed to funnel unlimited amounts of cash to candidates in the wake of Citizens United.
The Super PAC supporting Fiorinia was called Carly for America, which was not only similar to the name of her campaign (Carly for President) but violated the ban on Super PACs using a candidate’s name. So they simply changed it by turning CARLY into an acronym for “Conservative, Authentic, Responsive Leadership for You.” The logos stayed nearly identical.
Fiornia’s campaign skirted rules against coordination by making a public Google calendar that displayed her appearances weeks in advance, and by publishing the information the Super PAC needed in a press release. The well-staffed Super PAC would then show up early to every event and do all the things usually associated with a campaign, from staging to voter information-gathering, which her meager campaign staff lacked the manpower to do. Staff from each entity would communicate, go out for drinks, and their work would intermingle. One expert called the extent of the overlap “extraordinary.”
Flores herself was a staffer at the Super PAC who coincidentally ended up migrating to the campaign, which was definitely in no way coordinating its activities with the Super PAC. Ever the loyal underling, she would insist to the press it was all perfectly legal, while winking at the very obvious game being played. She praised the Super PAC’s work in emails (“from what we continue to see, Carly for America has been building one of the strongest ground games in the field”) and said things like, “We’ll continue doing our thing, but we’re thrilled that they’re doing theirs.”
All the while, Flores displayed the kind of casual disregard for the truth that makes for a quality political operative, but a lousy news editor. She would put out statements like this one, which, besides doubling down on Fiorina’s irresponsible use of the misleading Planned Parenthood “sting” video, played other games with the facts. Flores defended Fiorina’s frequent claim that she went “from secretary to CEO” — meant to evoke a rags-to-riches story that ignored Fiorina’s wealthy, well-connected parents, as well as the fact that she only worked as a secretary as a temp job before graduate school — by explaining that, yes, technically she once worked as a secretary, and then later she became a CEO. She waved away criticisms of Fiorina’s poor business record by claiming the executive had doubled her company’s revenues, something a number of critics pointed out was only true because of a 2002 merger with another company. In fact, the company’s overall profits declined.
It’s this kind of commitment to painstaking accuracy that no doubt put Flores on the radar for “the most trusted name in news.”
The Trump Pivot
Once Fiorina was out, Flores jumped to Ted Cruz’s campaign, where, as a frequent MSNBC talking head, she proceeded to savage Trump while denying he was a real Republican, calling him an authoritarian who “loves executive power.” As late as June, when asked by Willie Geist if there was “any chance he can bring you around,” Flores replied, “No.”
But somewhere between those appearances and the election, Flores presumably remembered she wanted a job in GOP politics. Her media talking points subtly shifted, dropping the attacks on Trump in favor of attacks on Hillary Clinton and cautious praise for things like the “wonderful job” Trump had done “sounding more like a politician,” or the way that he “speaks from the gut.” When Steve Kornacki asked her if Trump’s erratic behavior would prevent him from expanding his base, Flores pivoted to talking about “a weakness of the last eight years of the Obama administration” and of Clinton. “The Trump voters that I know are talking about how he’s highlighted the failures of this administration,” she said.
On another, August 18 appearance on Chris Hayes’s show, Flores was asked about Trump’s decision to hire former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, widely viewed as the mastermind behind Trump’s campaign, and a “white nationalist” who had made Breitbart into what he called “the platform for the alt-right.” Flores quickly played down Bannon’s role in the campaign and talked up who she called “by far the best surrogate for the Trump campaign,” Kellyanne Conway. “Steve Bannon basically came on as a senior adviser, but Kellyanne Conway, as far as we’ve been told, is running the ship,” she said.
There were other highlights from this period. Flores rightly complained about the way Democrats refused to accept Trump’s victory, before asserting that “we didn’t have recounts in 2008, saying that it was John McCain’s election and Barack Obama took it from him.” Chris Hayes pointed out this was exactly the argument underlying the birther movement, and the GOP’s successful assault on ACORN. To be fair, it’s hard to know if this is outright dishonesty or simply ignorance.
On Bill O’Reilly’s show, she claimed Obama’s retaliatory expulsion of Russian diplomats was an attempt to “throw dust in the eye of the transition team” because “Donald Trump will come in and do what he promised, which to undo all of these disastrous regulations, policies, foreign policy in particular.” She declared that Obama’s legacy was as a “foe to Israel,” a common right-wing talking point based on the handful of times Obama ignored the dictates of that country’s prime minister, but one completely divorced from reality.
All of this makes sense. Flores is a career operative who knew she would return to her industry once the campaign was over, and she subtly modulated her on-air talking points to comport with the GOP campaign. The trouble is, she’ll be in the exact same position while she coordinates CNN’s campaign coverage.
Defending the Indefensible
After prostrating herself before Trump, Flores was allowed to serve as the spokesperson for Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Her job was chiefly defending Sessions against any and all criticism.
When Sessions came under fire for his long racist history, Flores dismissed the accusations as a “smear.” Even as civil rights groups uniformly came out against Sessions, and NAACP members were arrested protesting his nomination, Flores waved away criticisms as “false portrayals” that were “tired, recycled, hyperbolic charges that have been thoroughly rebuked and discredited.” When 1,140 faculty members from 171 law schools wrote to oppose his nomination, she called it “just business as usual for the same far-left academics who trot out letters opposing just about any conservative or Republican.”
Flores proceeded to dishonestly defend a broad range of Sessions’s actions. When the city of Chicago pushed back on his attacks on sanctuary cities, Flores made the easily debunked claim that sanctuary policies lead to higher crime. She claimed that “chain migration” was a terrorist threat (it’s not) and that the system had to be changed to bring in “people with the highest likelihood to flourish in this country.”
Trump’s Muslim ban, she said, was “well within his lawful authority to keep the nation safe and protect our communities from terrorism.” The Trump administration’s report that attempted to link terrorism to immigration had been worked on by Sessions’s office, with Flores suggesting she herself played a role. “For those of us who were actually involved, this story is as bizarre as it is fictional,” she said in response to a story alleging that the Department of Homeland Security hadn’t been involved.
Other notable actions by Sessions while Flores served him include his monstrous family separation policy (“The AG has been clear: We do not want to separate families,” Flores later said, even though Sessions had been very clear about his intentions) and his war on journalism. Sessions tripled the number of leak investigations, and after threatening to start subpoenaing reporters, seized a journalist’s email and phone records. Now his loyal spokesperson will be driving news coverage.
Flores may not have any news experience, but she does at least arrive at her position with CNN with media contacts. After lamenting in 2016 that she “couldn’t see how [Trump] moves away from the Breitbart audience,” Flores appeared to cultivate her own contacts with the outlet.
According to emails released by the Department of Justice, while Sessions was in the middle of a controversy around potentially perjuring himself, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak asked Flores, “Can I help?”
“Anything you can do to push back on the absurdity,” she replied. “Forwarding you our stuff so far.”
The result was this Breitbart piece, presenting the Justice Department’s talking points. “Let me know if there is more I can do,” Pollak told her.
It’s Always Been This Way
For those keeping track at home, Flores is an anti-Trump GOP operative who knowingly skirted the lines of campaign finance rules and played with the truth to help her clients, before quickly dropping her opposition to Trump, humiliating herself to join his administration, and eagerly disseminating his preferred talking points once he was the one paying her. CNN, a news channel presented by both Trump and itself as the leading arm of journalistic opposition to his administration, has now hired her to run their election coverage for the next two years, presumably before she spins back through the revolving door to become a full-time party hack again.
We shouldn’t be angry at Flores for her lack of principles. That’s what being a party operative is about: to fudge, dissemble, and obfuscate for the purpose of benefiting your client, who in her case has been the GOP. Rather, we should be angry with CNN, which, like much of the establishment media, feels the constant need to kowtow to the Right for the sake of viewpoint diversity, even as its bylines are almost entirely devoid of commentators anywhere to the left of Hillary Clinton.
CNN’s media correspondent, Brian Stelter, defended the hiring because, “love it or hate it, political insiders have been joining newsrooms for decades.” That news outlets have simply internalized this as normal is exactly the problem.