Photo: Courtesy of Jeffrey Lord
Jeffrey Lord worked as an associate political director in the Reagan White House and has been a conservative columnist for decades. But these days, he’s best known for his appearances on CNN during the opening months of the Trump presidency, when he frequently went on Trump’s least-favorite cable network to spar with talking-head critics of the president. Often criticized for his unbending (and sometimes mind-bending) loyalty to Trump no matter the subject, Lord was fired by the network in 2017 after he tweeted “Sieg Heil” at the president of Media Matters — an episode he says was misunderstood.
Intelligencer spoke with Lord a couple of weeks ago — before Trump’s racist tweets sparked another round of commentary about the president’s prejudices — about what he’s up to now, the possible causes of his CNN dismissal, and how he thinks the Trump presidency is going.
You were fired by CNN almost two years ago now, in 2017. And you’ve been considerably less in the public eye since then. What’s your life like these days?
I mention this in the book to some degree — simultaneously with the CNN thing, I was taking care of my then 97-year-old mom. And when I’d go off on these jaunts with CNN, I’d get the Visiting Angels in here. She was living with me here, and they’d come and take care of her.
Once I was fired — frankly, in retrospect, I’m just glad, because I was able to spend a lot of time here with her. She couldn’t walk anymore and she was cruising in and out of dementia. She passed away July 21st, of last year.
I’m sorry to hear that.
I was right here holding her hand, so all was well — as well as any of that kind of thing can be. So I don’t regret any of that. But I began to get calls, almost immediately, from Fox to go on. I was on repeatedly with Laura Ingraham, I was on with Tucker once. And now that mom is gone, I do a Tuesday spot on Hannity radio every Tuesday with my old CNN pal Katie McEnany. And I’ve been starting to do more TV.
I also wrote the book, and I’ve been busy with op-eds and a column in the American Spectator sometimes once, sometimes twice a week, and a column every weekend for Newsbusters. And then I do a fair amount of radio around the country. So there’s never been a lack of things to do.
My assessment of this, is that as time has gone on, CNN — which is to say Jeff Zucker — has made a decision to go the anti-Trump route, to go further and further left.
Jeff used to say that he protected me, and I appreciated it. But I kept thinking, “Why do I need protection?” I’m a mainstream, Reagan conservative who’s written tons, published two books, been in all sorts of publications, and none of it — from my perspective, at least — was radical. It’s just Ronald Reagan stuff, as adapted to the world of Trump.
They are pretty different ideologies, Reagan and Trump.
Well, not really. It’s peace through strength. Reagan used to get criticized for not sitting down with the Soviet Union. He would joke, “Well, they keep dying on me.” But he got serious criticism from Democrats for that. I remember George Shultz being pounded at some Senate hearing by Paul Tsongas, and then, of course, when Reagan did reach out, there were criticisms in the other direction.
This is exactly what’s happening to Trump with North Korea. People are aghast at him being at the U.N. and saying “little rocket man,” and they think he’s going to get us into war, and then he actually sits down with the guy and they go after him for sitting down with him.
Reagan’s rhetoric was never that bellicose. It wasn’t, “We’re going to destroy your country.” Though he did call them an “evil empire.”
You were among the first to take Trump seriously as a political force, and you’ve been unshakably faithful to the president over the last few years. Anderson Cooper once said, “If Trump took a dump on your desk you would defend it.” In the book, you say you took that remark in good humor.
I did, I thought it was funny. If you see the clip, I burst out laughing. There was a little delay because I was Skyping, and the minute I realized what he said — by then I’d gotten to know Anderson fairly well, and he’s got a great sense of humor. So I laughed.
So I assume you think Trump is doing a great job currently?
Sure, sure. I mean, I think the economy is rocketing along. He was elected to be a disruptor. Lots of people in America, certainly right where I live here in Pennsylvania, have just had it with the cookie-cutter politicians and the swamp, as I call it in the book. And they are in full-out, all-scale rebellion. The other week, when he had his announcement thing in Orlando, I was invited to a local tavern here that Trump people had taken over for the event. The owner has a big, electronic sign that towers over Interstate 83. For the night, the name of his tavern was gone, and it was flashing “Trump 2020,”and it was a sea of red hats and T-shirts, and they’re watching this speech and cheering him on.
I don’t doubt that the people are very enthusiastic about Trump around there. But you portray this war as being between an “old order,” which does things in an outmoded, politically correct way — against insurgents like Trump, who are shaking up this system as a so-called “deep state” tries to destroy him. My question is: What has he actually disrupted? Because to me, it seems like these promises of making elites’ lives harder and making normal peoples’ lives easier haven’t really panned out. The economy is running well, but I don’t really see how he has drained the swamp. Rich people have gotten a huge tax cut, big corporations are getting more favorable treatment than ever, and his presidency has been full of a lot of the old swamp-ish ways of corruption and self-dealing.
Well, the people here, people on the ground, regular folks — there are “Now Hiring” signs all over the place around here, and they are acutely aware of it. One guy went out of his way to tell me the other night that he can’t keep up with all the business that’s coming in. And this is just a blue-collar guy, a house painter. So, they love this stuff, and they are benefiting directly from it. Again, I go back to the Reagan years, because I used to hear this very same thing. When Reagan was running for reelection that, it was the rich this, the rich that. Well, the guy carried 49 states.
People liked Reagan personally as well, and they didn’t like his opponents very much. People who like Trump love him, but the majority of the country does not like him personally. They find him somewhat repulsive.
I don’t know if it’s the majority, but there certainly are people that don’t like him. There’s no question.
He has a 41 percent approval rating in this booming economy. You’d think it would be higher with a normal president.
Well, when it all comes down to him versus another person next year, I think that will change. A lot of the criticism of him — this is something that I picked up on early, was that he offended people’s sense of style. The substance is something else. All this stuff that he’s a fascist — this is just ridiculous.
When I interviewed him in 2014, we were talking about the media, and he said how dishonest it was. It’s nothing that everybody else hasn’t heard now. But it was the first time I was hearing from him, and I had prompted it because I had asked him a question based on Republican nominees not fighting back. And I knew there were people I would talk to who would wonder why Mitt Romney or John McCain or George W. Bush just sort of sat there and took it. And he went on at great length that this was not going to happen to him.
Trump’s treatment of the news media is straight from a playbook that fascist leaders have followed — calling CNN and other outlets the “enemy of the people,” and that that sort of rhetoric. You said in the book that you still have a lot of affection for your old CNN colleagues, even though you were fired from the network.
I do. I think the world of Anderson Cooper even though we disagree on things.
Does it bother you that Trump has singled out that network particularly, portrayed himself body-slamming CNN in an infamous tweet and so on? I think a lot of people would say this goes beyond media criticism and verges on incitement.
Well, I don’t think so. I think they give it to him and he gives it back. I don’t find this anywhere near in the same league as Obama wanting to break into James Rosen’s emails and tap his phone, or whatever he was trying to do. [Editor’s note: Rosen’s phones were not tapped.] And then ditto with, what was his name from the New York Times? James Risen from the New York Times. That’s serious stuff. When you’re employing the Department of Justice to go after reporters, I think that’s a big deal.
What about Trump going after Julian Assange?
Yeah, in truth, I have been a little concerned about that. But I understand the fine difference here, sort of — that they’re saying, “Well, it’s because he conspired to break in to get information.” And that’s different than just being on the receiving end of it, like reporters of the Post and Times were with the Pentagon Papers. But yeah, I am a little bothered. As I’ve said numerous times on CNN, I’m a First Amendment fundamentalist. And I just think that people should be able to print what they want and then so be it. The consequences for whatever they print or say are out there.
You were fired from CNN after you tweeted “Sieg Heil” at Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America.
Which was from my column.
You portray your firing as part of a campaign by Media Matters to get you off the air.
Oh, yeah, there’s no question. And this is well beyond me at this point. They want Laura off the air, they want Tucker, Sean, Rush Limbaugh, you name it. This is what they do.
You don’t think there’s any other reason that CNN might have been looking for an excuse to get rid of you? Could it be that they just don’t want any pro-Trump people around?
Well, I think it’s probably a combination. As I mention in the book, I learned in the immediate aftermath that Rush Limbaugh thought CNN was looking to get rid of me for a long time — that a Trump supporter just didn’t really fit in there. I hadn’t heard anything. But months and months later, I did hear from somebody inside CNN that that was exactly it, and that there were people there that just could not abide me. And I think I’m a pretty easygoing soul, easy to get along with. I never had any problems with people. But it was clear, according to this person, that I was a target and they were going to come for me. So that was the excuse.
You also portray Media Matters, and the left in general, as anti-Semitic and racist.
I’m writing a column in the Spectator about how Kamala Harris is the new George Wallace and the segregationists that … well, I won’t bore you with all this stuff …
I had done my research, and there was Alan Dershowitz calling out this anti-Semitism problem on the left. And then there were the leaks that appeared in the Daily Caller about Angelo Carusone’s blog posts and all that, that somebody’s okay despite being “Jewy.” And there’s a later one that I didn’t put in there because I didn’t know about it, where he referred to somebody liking Jewish gold. This is pretty blatant stuff.
Trump has also said some disturbing stuff on this issue. He ran an ad in 2016 with the faces of George Soros, Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankfein, which was widely criticized as anti-Semitic. He once told a Jewish crowd of donors, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politician.” He tweeted out the Star of David with a pile of cash on it, and then there are his Charlottesville comments. This stuff seems all just as ripe for criticism, as anything, say, Ilhan Omar has ever said.
This is the same thing as dealing with North Korea. If your underlying premise is that you’re practicing, in Reagan’s words, peace through strength, then that’s the mind-set that you take in to a foreign-policy negotiation. If, in point of fact, members of Donald Trump’s own family — his beloved daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren — are Jewish and he has been a gangbusters ally of Israel … it’s hard to suggest that he’s anti-Semitic. He just isn’t.
I don’t think it’s hard to suggest that he can employ anti-Semitic tropes while also having Jewish relatives. Two things can be true at once.
Knowing him, he’s not anti-Semitic. Maybe he had said things that were out of character — not out of character, but inappropriate, or what have you. But I know him. This is not who he is. It’s like the business that he’s a racist. I just think that we’re dealing with a political opposition that is now, and has always been, race-based. They believe in using, as we say today, “the race card” all the time.
As a big Trump fan, does anything he is currently doing bother you?
The one thing that I wish I would see more of is budget cuts, and things of that nature. I know he’s concerned about it. I had this conversation with him before he ran, about the deficit. And I know that he really wants to get it done, but it’s hard work to do it, as Reagan found. This gets right to the essence of the swamp. You create government programs and you’ve instantly created hundreds of lobbyists, and then it’s very hard to take something away.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.