CNN's Newest Pro-Trump Contributor Has Already Landed Himself in Hot Water

Sean Duffy speaks in the Cabinet Room of the White House on January 24, 2019 - Getty-H 2019

Inside and outside the network's building, former Republican congressman Sean Duffy is taking heat for his comments about the latest impeachment witness.

On Oct. 20, former Republican congressman Sean Duffy was introduced as CNN's newest conservative contributor. Only nine days later, Duffy was called out publicly by two of his CNN colleagues for his comments about a White House national security official, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

During an appearance Tuesday on the CNN morning show New Day, Duffy questioned the allegiance of Vindman, who testified in the House impeachment inquiry about his concerns regarding President Donald Trump's conduct toward Ukraine.

"It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense," Duffy said. "I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure that the Ukraine got those weapons. I understand that. We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from. ... He has an affinity, I think, for the Ukraine. He speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country and he wants to make sure they’re safe and free."

While New Day co-host John Berman pushed back in the moment, saying "that's a pretty stunning comment," his colleagues pushed back even harder. "That is some anti-immigrant bigotry," said CNN anchor Brianna Keilar. "And, it’s an odd questioning of patriotism coming from Sean Duffy, the guy who spent part of his 20s on MTV’s The Real World and the Real World – Road Rules Challenge, while Alexander Vindman spent his years in foreign deployments, including one to Iraq where he was awarded a Purple Heart after he was injured by a roadside bomb." (Duffy was a castmember on The Real World's sixth season in Boston.)

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst, took a shot at Duffy on Twitter. "This is disgusting, and @RepSeanDuffy (and others doing the same) know better," he wrote. "Soldiers with skills and cultural backgrounds like LTC Vindman are specifically recruited for Foreign Area Officer (FAO) duties to benefit the US. And they are passionate about their patriotism."

Duffy's remarks drew criticism from across the television news spectrum. Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative and an MSNBC contributor, told The Hollywood Reporter that CNN "ought to be embarrassed" by Duffy's comments. He added, "It's one thing to have someone with another point of view. It's quite another having a paid contributor who engages in these kinds of reckless and dishonest smears."

"Attacking Lt Col. Vindman's patriotism, directly or indirectly, is despicable," retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Fox News analyst Ralph Peters told THR on Tuesday. "Many of us who served in uniform and faced the Russians want our government to support Ukraine against Vladimir Putin. Does that mean we're disloyal to the United States? Quite the contrary." He added, "Let's see Sean Duffy's Purple Heart."

A CNN spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Duffy's remarks.

But CNN president Jeff Zucker mentioned Duffy's hiring when discussing the network's conservative contributor strategy at a conference on Thursday. "I think it's our job to explain to as many of our viewers as possible why there are people who support Trump, why people believe in him, and it's our job to question them and to hold them to account," he said. "People ask, 'Why do you pay people to come on and support him?' The latest one is five-term congressman Sean Duffy out of Wisconsin, who we just added to our roster of Trump voices on CNN. I get a lot of criticism from folks who want to know, 'Why you do you pay people to come on and talk in support of the president?' It's my belief that we should represent out there what those who support Donald Trump think. .... We need those voices, and I think there's a place for them."

Zucker admitted that "it's hard to find people who will come on and support the president's point of view," explaining why CNN pays contributors instead of bringing them on as unpaid guests. 

Zucker's pro-Trump contributor strategy has generated blowback throughout Trump's presidency, with Duffy just the latest example. "It really is unfortunate," a former CNN contributor told THR on Tuesday. "I understand the need for parity, but it’s dangerous when you pay people whom you know will lie without any regard for the facts. Truly adds no value."

Duffy also generated controversy on his second day on the job, when he used an appearance on New Day to speculate about the location of a missing DNC server tied to the 2016 election. "What [White House acting chief of staff] Mick Mulvaney was talking about was actually trying to find the server that was the DNC server, which was at the heart of the Russia investigation,” Duffy said. His colleague, co-anchor Alisyn Camerota, shot back, "But that's a conspiracy theory."