CNN’s decision to hire former Trump official, longtime Republican operative, and journalism neophyte Sarah Isgur as its new political editor is shaping up as quite a public relations disaster for the network. CNN executives are busily trying to explain to their staff why no one should be concerned that Isgur -- who has no journalism experience but reportedly did personally tell the sitting president that “she was on board with his agenda and would be honored to serve him” -- will occupy an editorial post where she will “play a coordinating role in our daily political coverage.” The network is facing internal criticism from staffers, and it had to mollify the Democratic National Committee by promising that Isgur won’t be involved with the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates that CNN will host.
Another problematic aspect of Isgur’s move to CNN is the fact that she was the chief spokesperson for the Department of Justice at a time when her boss, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was implementing a harsh crackdown on leakers who fed information to journalists -- a campaign that was launched, at least in part, to shore up Sessions’ standing with President Donald Trump. In her role as a DOJ flack, Isgur defended the seizure of a journalist’s electronic records and cheered the department’s hunt for leakers.
In June 2018, the Justice Department charged former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe with lying to the FBI as part of an investigation into whether he’d leaked classified information to journalists. As part of the investigation, the Justice Department obtained the phone and email records of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins, who was in a relationship with Wolfe, and informed Watkins that her data had been seized only after the fact. The Times and free press advocates slammed the Justice Department for its tactics. Isgur, who was then a DOJ spokesperson, defended the action, saying: “We fully complied with the department’s regulations.”
Those regulations state that journalists “shall be given reasonable and timely notice of the Attorney General's determination before the use of the subpoena, court order, or warrant, unless the Attorney General determines that, for compelling reasons, such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation, risk grave harm to national security, or present an imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm.” DOJ sources later told The Washington Post that the department leaders opted not to inform Watkins before the seizure because they worried “she might tip off [Wolfe] … or take other steps that would upend the investigation.”
In July 2017, short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci stirred a minor controversy after he obliquely accused former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus of leaking his financial disclosure information. In a since-deleted tweet, Scaramucci said he would contact the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate the leak. He then went on Fox News’ Hannity and praised Sessions for “going after the leaks” and accused “senior people” of “doing the leaking.”
Scaramucci’s remarks drew a response from DOJ -- specifically, from Isgur, who chimed in to give Scaramucci an attaboy. “We agree with Anthony that these staggering number of leaks are undermining the ability of our government to function and to protect this country,” Isgur told Politico. “Like the Attorney General has said, 'whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail,' and we will aggressively pursue leak cases wherever they may lead.”
This same DOJ flack who cheered on the prosecution of leakers and defended the seizure of a reporter’s communications data will soon be “coordinating” the political coverage of a cable news network. The reporters and journalists who work with Isgur and who have confidential sources within the administration will have to reckon with the fact that their incoming political editor played a key public role in the Trump administration’s war on leakers.