Despite Churn, Trump Can't Stop Filling His Team With TV Pundits

SAUL LOEB / AFP

Over the first two and a half years of his term, the president has repeatedly hired cable news contributors for key government positions, mostly from Fox News but also from CNN and CNBC.

John Bolton made a salary of $569,423 as a contributor for Fox News. He was less successful as Donald Trump's national security adviser, with his tenure ending recently in acrimony and recriminations.

"This is why it is advisable not to pick aides based on how they perform on television," CNN contributor Maggie Haberman said the morning after Bolton's forced resignation. "It's perhaps not the best way to find your next cabinet," anchor Alisyn Camerota agreed.

But the president is unlikely to be swayed by Haberman's warning. Over the first two and a half years of the Trump presidency, he has repeatedly hired cable news contributors for key government positions, mostly from Fox News but also from CNN (and CNBC, in the case of chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow).

Sometimes the transition is so seamless it's hard to tell it even happened. Former Virginia Attorney general Ken Cuccinelli went from discussing immigration on CNN as a paid contributor to discussing immigration on CNN as Trump's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director in a matter of weeks. (Trump also picked CNN contributor Stephen Moore for the Federal Reserve, but he didn't make it.)

There have been at least two Fox-for-Fox swaps, with former Fox News contributor Morgan Ortagus replacing former Fox host Heather Nauert as State Department spokesperson and former Fox contributor Monica Crowley replacing former Fox contributor Tony Sayegh as Treasury Department spokesperson. (While on the job, Sayegh kept in close contact with his former Fox colleagues, FOIA emails revealed.)

Cable news hosts who have spoken with The Hollywood Reporter recently have talked through why they think President Trump does this — and keeps doing it, despite decidedly mixed results.

"I know that he is attracted to people who look good on TV and pop on TV," Camerota told THR earlier this month. "But, apparently when they get there it gets more complicated. Something goes wrong between liking someone on TV and then having them work for you."

MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell told THR this summer that Trump is hiring the TV pundits who will have him. "I wish he was picking the best, but it's like saying he was picking the best people for [The Apprentice]. What he was picking for his TV show was the people who would do it because that's where show business left them."

O'Donnell is particularly down on Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, who has appeared regularly across the networks to defend his policies. "There's not an economist in the country who thinks that's a serious person," he said. "I wish he was picking the best economists who appear on television because Harvard economics professor Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, appears on this program frequently. Happy for anyone in government to take their advice from him."

"Trump has hired so many TV personalities because serious people don't want to work for him," Army veteran and former Fox News contributor Ralph Peters told THR this week.

The revolving door between cable news and the Trump administration has also bothered good governance groups. "If people can audition for a senior role in the government by regularly praising him on TV or giving interviews from his properties, that can raise questions about whether he's truly hiring the best people for the job," said a spokesman for the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington. 

"With the number of television personalities and celebrities working for President Trump, he seems to be treating his administration as one big reality tv show," stated a director at the D.C. watchdog nonprofit group Common Cause. "Having so many seemingly underqualified individuals in positions of power wastes Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars and decreases faith and confidence that government is working for every day."

But Peters, who spent more than a decade as an on-air analyst for Fox News before leaving in 2018, said that some cable news contributors — including Bolton — have what it takes. He said, "Cable news is a semi-coherent, increasingly repetitive mush of veteran public servants with real expertise; of zombies risen from the graves of dead government careers; of bright young things with little grasp of the world's complexity; of those treading water while awaiting rescue by a new administration; of former military officers (most sound and helpful to the public, some craven); and of academics who offer valuable insights and impractical solutions. Being on television neither qualifies you for, or disqualifies you from, government service."