CNN's Rick Santorum Doesn't Mind His Social Media Critics

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Rick Santorum

"I've never had CNN tell me, 'We don't want you to say this,' or, 'We don't want you to say that,'" says the former senator.

Republican former Sen. Rick Santorum is not always popular on CNN's set.

During a 9-person panel on Wednesday night, chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin wasn't buying what Santorum was selling in defense of President Donald Trump, who was torched earlier in the day by congressional witness Michael Cohen. “Is that really the best defense you can come up with?” Toobin asked, drawing laughs.

Santorum found a more sympathetic audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, where attendees expressed their sympathy and support for him, particularly when he's put up against a large panel of left-leaning commentators and hosts. "It makes me crazy," a conservative radio host told him. 

But Santorum doesn't mind being outnumbered. "It actually makes me feel more comfortable because I feel more comfortable inserting myself in the discussion," he told The Hollywood Reporter after a panel discussion. "Do you really need to hear seven people say the same thing, or versions of the same thing, without anybody pushing back? ... No, I don't have a problem with that at all."

The two-term senator and two-term Republican presidential candidate spoke glowingly of his first two years a CNN senior political commentator and one of the few strongly conservative, pro-Trump voices on the network.

"One of the reasons I love it there is I get a chance to go on that network, as sometimes a lone voice, but have a chance to make the case and say what I want to say," he said. "The beautiful thing about CNN is: no holds barred, I can say whatever I want to say and however I want to say it. They've been very good folks to work with."

He knows that many of CNN's more left-leaning viewers aren't with him. "I do understand that it's an audience that by and large doesn't agree with the positions that I'm taking, and so it's really important to try to do it in a way that's respectful and that people will be willing to listen," he said. "I don't want to get them any reason to turn me off. I want them to hear the alternative."

Santorum has been a lightning rod for criticism, attracting the ire of the internet — not to mention his fellow panelists — for his commentary on a range of topics, particularly his Nov. 25 assertion that climate change scientists "are driven by the money they receive." Not surprisingly, his Twitter mentions that day were a mess. "Why does CNN traffic in this nonsense?" asked progressive writer and press critic Eric Boehlert.

But, Santorum probably missed it. "I don't really do much on Twitter because it is sort of just a screamfest," he said. "I know that there are people who are out there who say, 'Oh, I'll never watch CNN if you're on,' or, 'I turn it off when you're on.' But, that's sort of the organized group of the resistance."

Among the CNN-watchers that Santorum meets in real life, "They all are very appreciative," he said. "Most of them do not share my point of view. ... They all come up and tell me how much they enjoy my commentary. So, I've got to feel like other than the activists out there who are on Twitter and part of the resistance, that the vast majority of the CNN audience wants to hear a responsible voice on the other side."

Asked about the backlash to his comments about climate change, he said it's "one of many" topics he gets hammered on. But, he feels supported by CNN. "I've never had CNN tell me, 'We don't want you to say this,' or, 'We don't want you to say that.'"

Well, it happened once. "One time, on air, I used a curse word, which I quickly afterwards apologized," he said. "But, that's the only time they said, 'Hey, we really don't want you to be swearing on the air.' But, that's the only time they've ever said anything, and they were appropriate to say it."