Over the past month, President Donald Trump has asked several administration officials the same question. “Where’s Steve?” the president has repeatedly inquired, according to two officials who’ve heard him do so in the White House.
The “Steve” in question isn’t Steve Mnuchin, Miller, Bannon, or Moore. It’s Steve Cortes, a member of the Trump 2020 advisory board and a paid on-air contributor at CNN, a perennial media foe of the president’s.
Late last week, The Hollywood Reporter published a story on how Cortes had been “benched” by network brass, and hadn’t appeared on CNN in the U.S. in more than a month. “They just won't book him,” a former CNN contributor told THR. “They’ll just pay him. They won’t fire him, because that’s just blatant. But they won’t book him, and they’ll tell all the producers not to book him.”
Within the past few weeks, the leader of the free world came to notice Cortes’ absence from CNN, a network Trump has on-and-off insisted that he doesn’t watch or pay attention to anymore.
Recently, the president has dealt with news of a possible recession on the horizon, the aftermath of high-profile shootings and a racist, anti-immigrant mass murder, a debate over gun control laws, U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the implosion of his pick for Director of National Intelligence. He has trashed the city of Baltimore, promoted a conspiracy theory that the Clintons killed pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, and made fun of Chris Cuomo.
And he has also found the time to get personally invested in the status of Steve Cortes’ TV career.
On top of grousing to his aides, Trump got on the phone with Cortes in the past month to ask him what was going on, and to complain about CNN’s “bias” and how unfairly the cable news network has treated its pro-Trump, conservative commentator, two sources familiar with the call tell The Daily Beast.
“It wasn’t enough to have a stacked, four-versus-one panel,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a current Trump surrogate and former CNN contributor. “CNN has decided to eliminate as many Trump supporters as possible, including me, Jeff Lord, Jason Miller, Bryan Lanza, and Steve Moore. The Republicans who survive are the ones who take constant jabs at Trump. They’re Never Trumpers or RINOs.”
Kingston, who did not have his CNN contract renewed for this year, added that while he didn’t receive a phone call from the president following the end of his paid contributorship, he used to get calls from Trump “from time to time” during his time at the network, when the president would praise Kingston’s performances in specific CNN segments and discuss “whatever issues” were on his mind. Trump would also ask about the other panelists he enjoyed watching—and would be sure to point out the ones he “did not like,” Kingston said.
As for Kingston’s former colleague, the president has known and personally liked Cortes for years, and this isn’t the first time he’s taken an interest in the TV commentator’s career path. In late 2017, Trump and Cortes had a conversation at the White House in which the president remarked on how much he appreciated all of Cortes’ appearances on Fox News (the network on which Cortes was a regular at the time), a former White House official recalled.
Still, the president had something else on his mind: he asked Cortes to go back to CNN, where the Trump surrogate was most needed to do battle with the network’s armada of anti-Trump liberals and Never Trumpers, according to this ex-official. The president made it clear he wanted Cortes sticking it to the libs at CNN before and during his re-election campaign.
Cortes didn’t disappoint. By late Jan. 2018, he tweeted: “It's official, I'm now a @CNN Political Commentator. Had a terrific run at @FoxNews, excited about the adventures ahead!”
It’s unclear if this latest adventure has effectively ended, or if he’s just in the penalty box. CNN, Cortes, and the White House did not provide comment for this story.
Earlier this year, Cortes was briefly considered, according to Politico, as a possible successor to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a job that ultimately went to Stephanie Grisham.
Cortes caused a minor internal stir at the network over his attempt to recast history in Trump’s favor, admonishing the media and essentially absolving Trump of his comments following the murder of a protester by a neo-Nazi at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Earlier this month, Trump shared a video Cortes recorded for the conservative website PragerU in which the CNN pundit made a heavily revisionist argument—one that has picked up steam in recent months and is nowadays regularly made by Trump campaign officials—claiming that Trump had not referred to neo-Nazis or white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people” but was instead referring to a different group of protesters.
CNN’s media reporter Oliver Darcy criticized Cortes on Twitter, saying the commentator’s comments were “a weird thing for someone who is a paid CNN commentator to say, given the network's accurate reporting on the matter.” Primetime anchor Anderson Cooper added that although he likes Cortes personally, his description of Trump’s comments about Charlottesville were “inaccurate” and “actually wrong.”
The pundit’s absence from CNN’s air comes as pro-Trump pundits have become far scarcer on the cable news network. Earlier this year, the network decided not to renew the contracts of two of Trump’s fiercest on-air defenders—Kingston and former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer—and as The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, another commentator sympathetic to Trump, Ben Ferguson, has not been on CNN since April.