Here Are CNN's Ground Rules for Newt Gingrich

If Newt Gingrich shows signs of raising money or hiring staff for another presidential run he would have to immediately give up his new job on CNN's reborn Crossfire, a top CNN executive told Media Matters.

But until that time, Gingrich can remain on the CNN payroll even as he is involved with at least two political action committees that are working to raise money for Republican candidates and help the former House Speaker retire his 2012 campaign debt, as long as any conflict is disclosed on the show.

Rick Davis, a former Crossfire producer and current CNN executive vice-president of standards and practices, said Gingrich, who has floated a potential 2016 presidential run, would have to give up his new job at the network if he starts fundraising for a new political campaign or forms a staff to conduct such an effort.

“If they're going to get in touch with the [Federal Election Commission] and start raising some money for a campaign our relationship's over, or if they are going to start having some paid staff for some sort of campaign, our relationship's over,” Davis said when asked about Gingrich.

According to Davis, Gingrich is subject to the same rules that applied to Crossfire hosts in the show's previous incarnation. Both Pat Buchanan and Geraldine Ferraro ended stints as hosts of that program to run for office, Buchanan for a 2000 presidential run and Ferraro for a 1998 Senate run.

“I was overseeing Crossfire back then and I dealt with both of them then and the policy then is the same policy now,” Davis added.

Davis' comments come just days after Gingrich hinted that he may make another White House run in 2016.

In an interview with fellow Crossfire host S.E. Cupp, Gingrich said he would not rule out a 2016 run. When asked if he would “run again in the future,” Gingrich replied: “I don't know. We still have a substantial campaign debt. If we can pay it off we would seriously look [at] a 2016 run.”

Gingrich had been asked in the past if he would consider running for president in 2016, and said at various times, “It's not a no,” “I don't rule it out, but we're not spending any energy on it,” “I have no idea at this stage,” “It's certainly something that we're going to keep our powder dry and see how the next two years evolve,” and “I doubt that, but one never knows.” 

In June, National Review Online quoted a Gingrich “insider” claiming of a potential Gingrich bid: “There's no planning or anything like that. But these are people who are big fans of his, so a lot of them want to see him run in 2016.”

Davis would not say if Gingrich had been asked about his 2016 plans during negotiations for the new Crossfire post, but added, “that's clearly our policy, he knows it and that's it.”

Davis said restricting commentators from being on the CNN payroll once they start raising money or hiring staff usually offers the best approach to any potential conflict of interest or advantage they might receive.

“You can't run without money and you can't run without staff,” Davis stressed. “Those are the steps that are the most overt ones that allow us to say, 'we're done.' That would be the case with anyone who is a contributor of ours and that would be the case with Newt.”

Davis said it would not be fair to keep paid commentators off CNN who might run if they have only shown a potential interest.

“If you're going to raise money you have to do the legal requirements with the FEC. If someone is going to give you money for a campaign, you have to go through that process of declaring, set up the campaign committee and start raising funds,” he said. “That is different than just running around the country speaking because a lot of people go around the country and speak on current affairs, but the line is crossed when you start raising money or hiring staff for a campaign team.”

But Gingrich typically sits at the center of a web of quasi-political activities that, while short of such direct steps for office, could prove an ethical nightmare for CNN.

Gingrich is already involved in at least two political action committees that will help fund conservative candidates for office. Would-be presidential contenders typically use such committees to finance their political travel to critical states and build up chits with local, state, and federal political leaders that they can later cash in during a run.

Gingrich and his wife, Callista, are honorary co-chairs of the American Legacy PAC, which has raised and spent about $1.4 million this election cycle, with most of that going to fundraising expenses. That outfit has also donated to two Republican candidates ($5,000 to Bill O'Brien, who is running for a House seat in New Hampshire, and $5,000 to Gabriel Gomez, the GOP candidate in the special election for former Sen. John Kerry's seat).

Gingrich also recently launched “the Committee for America,” a joint fundraising committee between his 2012 presidential campaign and American Legacy PAC whose purpose is to both retire campaign debt and support and raise money for conservative candidates.

According to Gingrich's website:

Any American looking to advance conservative candidates and conservatism can look to the new Committee for America. This platform is a joint effort of the American Legacy PAC and Newt 2012 with the three principal goals of generating new financial support for conservative candidates, charting a course for a better American future, and retiring outstanding financial obligations of Newt 2012, the presidential primary campaign of Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Davis said CNN was aware of these PACs when it hired Gingrich and has not asked him to dissolve them or distance himself from them. He said as long as they are not providing funds for a campaign directly involving Gingrich, they do not affect his eligibility to be a paid CNN commentator.

“Our issue was about him ... him running for president again,” Davis explained. “They're not raising money for his future campaign, they are raising money as it states to satisfy his 2012 campaign debt.”

Davis said that Gingrich will be required to disclose his ties to the PACs on Crossfire under certain circumstances.

“If Newt is helping fund a candidate and that candidate's on the show, or being discussed on the show, of course he'll disclose that,” Davis said. “Disclosure is important when it's relevant.”

Davis stressed that Gingrich comes to CNN as a partisan with other outside involvement that is well known, including PACs.

"Crossfire is only part of what he does, he's not a reporter, he's not an anchor and he continues to be a strategist and a partisan," Davis said. “If you look at the PACs, the PACs mirror what he's saying on the air, his vision, anybody who's watching and listening to him understands what he stands for, it's the mission of the PACs.”

Davis also said CNN was not concerned that the network could be used by potential candidates like Gingrich to raise their profiles and keep them in the public eye while being paid as well.

In a similar situation last year, Fox News allowed Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin to stay on its network even though they had PACs that raised and disbursed similar large sums of money.

Fox also waited to drop Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum from its payroll until they were moving toward exploratory committees for president in 2012.