Trump campaign adviser David Urban attended the president’s event at an ethane cracker plant in Pennsylvania last Tuesday, traveling with the president aboard Air Force One and getting a shoutout from Trump at one point during his speech.
On the surface, this would seem to be standard. Except Urban also happens to be a paid contributor for CNN—a position he continues to hold despite advising Trump’s political campaign.
CNN, however, doesn’t believe this to be a problem, citing the fact that Urban is not pulling a salary from the Trump camp.
According to a White House pool report, Urban was spotted on the president’s plane en route to Pittsburgh. As one of the most reliable Trump defenders on CNN, Urban previously worked on the president’s 2016 campaign, serving as a senior adviser focused on Pennsylvania.
During his remarks, the president motioned towards Urban, who was in the crowd, and described the CNN pundit as “one of my good friends.” He then posed a question to Urban: “How we doing in the state, David? We looking good?”
Since the start of the 2020 election season, at least three paid network contributors have left or been dropped by cable-news networks in order to work for presidential hopefuls.
Back in May, Marie Harf left both her position as a liberal pundit on Fox News and as co-host of Fox News Radio’s Benson and Harf in order to take on the job of deputy campaign manager for policy and communications on Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s Democratic primary campaign.
In January, meanwhile, MSNBC announced that former John McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt would not be an on-air political analyst so long as he advised former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s flirtations with a presidential run. Schmidt also departed from the Words Matter podcast he founded with fellow MSNBC analyst Elise Jordan, storming off in February when asked about his advisory role for the billionaire centrist.
And in April, former 2016 Bernie Sanders national press secretary Symone Sanders left her role as a CNN political commentator in order to work as a senior adviser on former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.
A CNN spokesperson told The Daily Beast that there’s a “big difference” between Urban’s and Sanders’ situations, stating that “Urban is not paid by the campaign.”
In the past, however, networks have typically frowned at even the specter of a paid employee getting involved in an ongoing political campaign. Fox News, for instance, (temporarily) parted ways with contributor Newt Gingrich in 2016 when it was speculated that then-candidate Trump could possibly tap the former House speaker as his running mate.
“Due to the intense media speculation about Gingrich’s potential selection as Donald Trump’s vice presidential candidate, we felt it best to halt his contributor role on the network to avoid all conflicts of interest that may arise,” Executive Vice President of News Jay Wallace said in a statement at the time.
In recent appearances on the network, Urban has been introduced as a Trump 2020 campaign adviser as well as a CNN political commentator. He has appeared in four separate segments—most recently on Aug. 16—so far this month and, as of press time, Urban’s Twitter account lists him as a CNN employee as well as president of a lobbying firm called American Continental Group.
Over the past couple of months, Urban—who has been on CNN payroll since 2017—has faced criticism for running that lobbying group while simultaneously using his CNN appearances to push positions—sometimes without any disclosure—that are favorable to his clients.
For instance, following the escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States, Urban called for a “measured” missile strike in the wake of Iran downing an unmanned American drone.
“If I were a betting man, I’d bet that there’d be some sort of a Tomahawk missile strike on the site that launched this,” Urban said during a June 20 appearance on CNN’s The Lead. “A very limited response, to the missiles that struck this, and not very escalating.”
Urban, however, did not disclose at the time that American Continental Group lobbies for major defense contractors. And shortly after the CNN broadcast, Urban registered as a lobbyist with Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest defense companies.
CNN’s continued reliance on Urban as a paid Trump defender could be due to their recent benching of other pro-Trump conservative pundits. The Hollywood Reporter reported Friday that paid contributors Steve Cortes and Ben Ferguson—both reliably pro-Trump commentators—have been cast aside by the network, leaving the network’s field of Trumpists temporarily short. (Especially after former commentator Ken Cuccinelli bolted to take a job with the Trump administration.)
Earlier this year, meanwhile, CNN came under fire for paying former Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich as an on-air commentator even though he made it no secret that he was weighing another presidential run. During a number of appearances after he was hired, Kasich sounded as if he were stumping for a prospective campaign, prompting CNN anchors flat-out asked him if he were weighing a run.