KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
CNN in Damage-Control Mode Over GOP Operative Hire Sarah Isgur
The hiring of longtime Republican operative Sarah Isgur has set off alarms for Democrats. Now the network is doing some cleanup.
The Democratic National Committee has sought and received assurances from CNN that the network’s new politics editor, Sarah Isgur, will not be involved in the debates that the channel hosts and moderates for the Democratic primary.
The assurances were provided after the committee expressed reservations to CNN over Isgur’s history in Republican politics and after officials at the committee raised concerns over her alleged connections to a now-retracted Fox News story on the debunked Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
CNN announced this week that it had hired Isgur to help oversee the network’s coverage of the 2020 election. Until late last year, she had served as Jeff Sessions’ top spokesperson at the Department of Justice after previously working on campaigns for Carly Fiorina and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Her hiring set off a round of recriminations from journalists, who argued that the longtime Republican operative had no prior experience in the news industry, and from Democrats, who believe she brings a clearly established ideological agenda with her to her new post.
Inside the DNC, the reaction was one of what one source called ”disbelief.” Officials there attempted to get clarity over what role she would actually play in campaign coverage. Ultimately, a senior DNC aide told The Daily Beast that CNN assured them Isgur would not have involvement in Democratic debates. It remains unclear the extent to which she will be involved in other elements of the network’s Democratic primary coverage.
"[Chairman] Tom Perez and the DNC expressed to CNN that they have serious concerns with the hire," the aide said. "They continue to talk to the network about how this impacts 2020, and as of Wednesday, they got assurances that Isgur would not be involved in debates."
According to sources, officials at the DNC were particularly concerned about Isgur’s alleged involvement in Fox News’ false reporting around the right-wing conspiracy theory that DNC staffer Seth Rich leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks and was murdered in 2016 as a result.
Isgur was mentioned multiple times in private investigator Rod Wheeler’s Sept. 2017 lawsuit against Fox News, in which he alleged the outlet falsely quoted him in a now-retracted article suggesting Rich was personally in contact with WikiLeaks before he was murdered in July 2016. Conspiracy theorists speculated that Rich was the source of the DNC’s leaked emails, despite claims from numerous intelligence agencies that the DNC was hacked by Russians intent on meddling in the 2016 election.
Wheeler specifically mentioned pro-Trump money manager Ed Butowsky as having coordinated between Fox News and Trump administration officials, including Isgur, on advancing the claims that Rich was the source of the leaks.
According to text messages included in Wheeler’s federal complaint, Butowsky claimed to have kept in regular contact with Isgur—along with then-Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer and then-chief strategist Steve Bannon—regarding the Seth Rich story. (The lawsuit was dismissed in 2018 by a federal judge who said Wheeler failed to prove he was misquoted.)
Wheeler recounted meeting with Isgur on April 19, 2017, although their conversation did not concern Seth Rich. However, while discussing that meeting, the complaint said, Butowsky texted Wheeler, boasting, “She knows me well. Tell her I said hello. Let her know why I was calling her, Seth Rich. Ask her to keep it quiet because we don’t know [ ] who the good or the bad people are anymore. But we know she’s one of the really good ones.”
In an emailed statement to The Daily Beast, Isgur strongly disputed the idea that she had any conversations with Wheeler or Butowsky about Rich. She also disputed Butowsky’s suggestion that they were much in contact. Wheeler, she said, had approached her about a matter involving “consent decrees while we were working with Baltimore.” And Butowsky had repeatedly called her after claiming to be a Fiorina donor, Isgur explained, but she ignored those calls because he’d been rude to a colleague.
“I have not spoken about the death of Seth Rich with or to anyone except in response to questions pertaining to this lawsuit. I have not been contacted by either party or their counsel in reference to this case,” Isgur added. “There is a legitimate discussion that can be had around my future employment, but this is not part of it.”
CNN did not immediately return a request for comment. But the backlash to Isgur’s hiring has not just come from the DNC but from within the network’s political reporting unit as well. On Tuesday, one CNN staffer described the hiring as “very bizarre” while another said political staff at the network were “demoralized.”
Three CNN staffers told The Daily Beast that some employees had considered drafting a letter to network head Jeff Zucker raising concerns about the hiring. And over the past two days, newsroom leaders have sought out reporters individually to clarify Isgur’s role.
A network spokesperson argued that television networks routinely hire former political candidates, lawmakers, or flacks for editorial roles, though few have ever had such an abrupt transition from government into a leadership role in a media organization.
Isgur wasn’t just interested in joining CNN after leaving DOJ. Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that Isgur also met with MSNBC about a job after she left DOJ, but the network ultimately passed on hiring her. Vanity Fair reported that she pitched MSNBC her intimate knowledge of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as a selling point.
—Andrew Kirell contributed reporting.