When Donald Trump issued his executive order on police reform almost two weeks ago, Democrats and progressives nearly universally panned it — with one notable exception. Former Obama advisor and now CNN contributor Van Jones praised it as “progress,” and a step in the right direction. “The executive order is a good thing,” Jones told Inside Politics, “mainly because you saw the support of law enforcement there.”
That didn’t escape the notice of Team Trump — but was that a serendipitous find, or part of a larger plan all along?
Van Jones on President Trump’s policing executive order: “progress has been made” pic.twitter.com/RtxMM8m1JF
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) June 16, 2020
The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove plays Paul Harvey in supplying what he says is the rest of the story. Jones was no mere disinterested observer, Grove reports — he was part of the White House’s effort to craft a “sweet spot” on police reform. Jones never disclosed his role to CNN or the audience, however:
Jones went on CNN’s Inside Politics with John King and Anderson Cooper 360 to enthusiastically commend Trump’s executive order—even as it was being criticized as cynical and unproductive by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and “delusional” by the Color of Change, an influential racial justice organization that Jones himself co-founded in 2005.
CNN viewers weren’t informed that he had actually attended secret White House meetings with his new friend Jared Kushner, discussing ways to frame the presidential project.
According to a knowledgeable White House source, who expressed satisfaction that there were zero leaks, Jones and California human rights attorney Jessica Jackson, who runs #cut50, a prison-reform group that Jones also founded, actively participated with law enforcement officials and White House staffers to help fashion the order and guide the politics of the discussion to what they considered “the sweet spot” between law enforcement and “the reasonable middle” and “the reasonable left.”
Well, it didn’t leak until now, anyway, and one has to wonder why anyone talked about it at all. We’ll get back to that in a moment, but Jones’ faux pas was not just an oversight. He made two appearances on CNN offering approval of the EO, and he didn’t disclose any meetings with the White House on either occasion:
Hours later, Jones doubled down on Anderson Cooper 360—again without disclosing his role advising the Trump White House. “What do you make of this executive order?” Cooper asked him.
“I think it’s pushing in the right direction,” Jones told the CNN anchor. “What you got today is, I think, a sign that we are winning,” he added. “Donald Trump has put himself on record saying we need to reform the police department… We are winning! Donald Trump had no plan a month ago to work on this issue at all. The fact that we are now in the direction of moving forward, I think, is good.”
Needless to say, this is an ethical violation, if true. Jones had a duty to disclose any connection as an advisor to the White House while reporting on the EO, especially as an advisor on the EO itself. Critics of CNN and other major media outlets routinely criticize hires from Democratic administrations that then report on people with whom they worked (or for whom they worked), and that’s with everyone knowing those connections. This would be worse, if true.
Will CNN fire Jones over this? You can bet they’re checking into it now. If this had involved a Democratic administration, it probably wouldn’t have caused much angst, although they might have rebuked Jones publicly. Working with Trump, though, especially on his police reform EO? That might have been a firing offense even if Jones had scrupulously offered disclosures. If this turns out to be true, the only place Jones will find media work will be at Fox News.
That’s why it seems so curious that someone on the inside leaked this at all, again assuming it’s true. Jones took a big risk in working with the White House, and they clearly valued his input. Burning him now means not having that kind of input in the future, not just with Jones but with anyone who would have to cross the aisle covertly to assist them. Did Jones cross them up, or did the leaker decide the dunk on CNN was worth it? If it’s the latter, that’s a strange decision.