Early on in the Trump administration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ran into a staffing problem as he took over the Department of Justice. According to The Washington Post, Sessions very much wanted to hire longtime Republican political operative Sarah Isgur as his chief spokeswoman, but she had “criticized [President Donald] Trump, repeatedly, during the 2016 Republican primaries,” and thus her “prospects for a Justice Department job stalled.” To break the logjam, the Post reported, Isgur paid Trump “a cordial visit during which she told the president she was on board with his agenda and would be honored to serve him.”
The incident was noteworthy when the Post reported it last April because it demonstrated both the president’s overriding need for loyalty and the willingness of Republican operatives to kiss Trump’s ring as a means of career advancement. The story has taken on new relevance now that the same Sarah Isgur who personally expressed her loyalty to the sitting president has reportedly been hired as a political editor at CNN.
In certain respects, this is a baffling move by CNN. According to Politico, which first broke the news, Isgur will assume her editorial role at the network in March and “will coordinate political coverage for the 2020 campaign.” Isgur is a career political operative -- she’s worked for Sessions, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the Republican National Committee, and Carly Fiorina’s failed 2016 presidential campaign -- but there is no indication that she has ever worked in any capacity as a journalist (unless you count appearing as a pundit on cable news, which you should not). CNN has hired a person with zero experience producing news to oversee the production of news.
Not only that, but the network has turned over its 2020 political coverage to a person who is more or less a walking conflict of interest. Politico notes that Isgur, because of her employment history, “will not play a role in covering the Department of Justice.” How on earth can a cable news channel have a political editor who can’t cover DOJ? The workings of the Justice Department are at the heart of some of the most critically important political stories of the Trump era. The Russia investigation and the special counsel’s office are going to be hugely important topics for the 2020 campaign, and Democratic candidates are likely going to spend considerable energy attacking DOJ policies that Isgur defended, such as Sessions’ legal assault on sanctuary laws for undocumented immigrants.
It doesn’t make much sense to have a political editor who has never worked in journalism, and it doesn’t make any sense to have a political editor who is walled off from important stories that will be central to the very coverage she is supposed to be coordinating. And those problems rest uneasily atop issues that arise from Isgur’s partisan leanings and her loyalties to current and former high-ranking Trump officials. Isgur’s presence will lead to persistent, difficult-to-answer questions about how her politics and conflicts of interest are shaping the network’s 2020 coverage.
CNN’s choice of a Trump administration veteran does, however, fit in with the network’s fantastically self-defeating strategy of hiring pro-Trump mercenaries who shill on behalf of a president and administration that delight in demonizing CNN. The journalism industry does not lack for talented, experienced professionals who are desperate for work, but CNN opted to give this important job to a Jeff Sessions acolyte who has never worked as a journalist. That sure feels like the network sabotaging its own interests in order to send a conciliatory message to a political movement that will always view it as an “enemy of the people.”