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What it's like to be Donald Trump's most prominent public defender

Jeffrey Lord talks CNN, Hitler and a landslide in November.

by Brendan James
Aug 30 2016, 12:20pm

CNN screenshot

At this stage, Donald Trump's campaign lineup appears to be in a bit of a perpetual shuffle. There was the early, hardcore sound of the Corey Lewandowski era, then the tough sophomore album with the straight-rock tones of Paul Manafort, which gave way to the current, psychedelic notes of Steve Bannon.

But amid all the shake-ups, breakdowns and implosions for the campaign, Jeffrey Lord, CNN political commentator and the most omnipresent defender of the Republican presidential nominee, has not budged.

Lord is arguably Trump's hardest-working spin doctor. He once defended the nominee's anti-Mexican remarks against a seven-panelist army like a propaganda ninja. He's also one of the precious few high-profile Trump lieutenants who has avoided scandal, whether that involve a contract killing gaffe or ties to a pro-Russian oligarch. Cooking under CNN's studio lights month after month, Lord has managed to survive while others fall victim to the Trump campaign curse.

Raised in Northampton, Massachusetts, by an actively political Republican family, Lord ended up working in the Reagan White House from 1985 to 1988 and also worked in the housing department under George H.W. Bush. He's a former establishment player, a onetime Romney backer who, much like former Nixon dirty trickster Roger Stone, transitioned into the "outsider" camp.

Lord may the the most recognizable Trump booster on TV, but he's paid by CNN, not the campaign. He did call himself a "surrogate," a campaign ambassador, throughout our two conversations. But after I asked CNN about any conflict of interest resulting from his employment, Lord sent me an email backing away from the term.

The broader media scene seems to see Lord as an embarrassment. The pro-Clinton Media Matters and anti-Trump Huffington Post have called on CNN to stop "humiliating" itself by paying him. A cursory Google search will turn up headlines on news sites, conservative and liberal alike, describing Lord getting "pummeled" and "owned" for his defenses of Trump.

But Lord has kept his perch. Speaking by phone from his home in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, earlier this month, he waxed for hours, interrupted only by sporadic commentary from his 97-year-old mother, whom he looks after now that she has dementia.

VICE News: Hi Jeff. What are you up to today?

I've already been on [CNN] at 6:30 a.m. this morning, and I'm actually packing for a vacation right now. CNN told me, if you're gonna take a vacation, take it in August, because after Labor Day, that's it, you're strapped in. So for my own sanity, I'm getting out.

Team Trump is in the middle of yet another staff shake-up. Do these recurring changes weaken your confidence in your candidate?

[Now ex-campaign manager] Paul Manafort was becoming the story, which is the one rule. The story can't be you; the story is the candidate.

I think it's fine—I have a long memory on this. In 1980, right at this time, Ronald Reagan went to Philly and Mississippi as the general campaign was opening, and Carter linked him to the Klan. Reagan unwisely hit back in the same way, until Mrs. Reagan asked [Republican consultant] Stu Spencer to come on. There were no more of those kinds of situations, and he went on to a landslide win.

You think this is evidence Trump is headed for a landslide win?

The fact that Trump is willing to do this kind of thing speaks well of him. I think he changes these things to suit whatever the problem is.

What do you think of Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway?

I've known Kellyanne off and on. I think she's terrific, deeply well qualified. I sat in on a meeting in 2014 when New York Republicans were trying to persuade Trump to run for governor, and she was there.

Steve—I just think he's been totally smeared as a white supremacist. It's just total BS. I read Breitbart every day.

Let's talk about your childhood.

[My parents] saved on babysitters by bringing me to their work. I was carted around to Lincoln Day dinners, and I remember being at a rally for Henry Cabot Lodge as he was running as Nixon's running mate in Springfield, not far from Northampton. As a kid, I was watching this with utter fascination. So they had a big influence.

Also, their close friends were Democrats, so they'd get together and I'd hear them talking politics. I'm in bed in and hear them in the kitchen yelling about Nixon and Truman and Eisenhower. But the lesson I learned from it was they were friends with these liberals. Politics is just politics and there's much more to life than just politics.

One of the women I've actually been in touch with was my old babysitter, and she's a Bernie Sanders supporter! She still lives in Northampton. She'll send me notes on occasion, when I'm on the air.

What does she say?

"You look tired."

What does your mother think of your new career?

She loves it. To be candid, we're starting to deal with [her] dementia, so there are occasions where she has no idea what's going on. But then, suddenly she's not; she sees me on TV and she thinks I'm doing great. She's proud of me.

The humorous part of this is she forgets a lot, so I'll say, "Hey mom I'm going to be on TV in my office." And I'll be in the middle of a segment and suddenly I'll hear, "JEFFREY, WHERE ARE YOU?"

It's not your first time in show business. You also did work as a movie extra after you left the White House in the '90s, right?

I remember sitting on the set of The Pelican Brief—they never used my scene—but there's a scene where Julia Roberts and Denzel realize a car is about to explode. And I thought, you know, I'm getting fed, I'm getting paid. This is not bad. If I can't be in government, this is not bad.

I sat through two weeks, $57 a day—I'm watching Julia Roberts up close. This is not bad.

Now you watch Wolf Blitzer up close. How has this election changed things for you? Do you get recognized on the street?

It happens all the time. At the Giant grocery store, there I am, going, "cheddar or gouda?" And a guy comes up and wants a selfie. In New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, it happens all the time.

Do you get talking points from the mothership?

Now that Trump is officially the nominee, the campaign sends out talking points. I get them all the time. But I've been around this thing for a long time, I sort of do my own talking points.

I'm just me. I'm pretty in tune with [Trump]. I don't break off into uncharted territory, I think at that point you lose credibility. I've probably lost credibility with some folks now anyway, but....

Despite your assurances, it's not looking good for Trump. Do you really think this is going to be a close race?

We live in a media age. It's a drive-by media. One story within 24 hours is going to be replaced by something else. I think this election is going to be decided in the last 48 hours on whatever happened last.

What I think is really happening here—I think what we have is the political class, which is the supposed "best and the brightest," in a bubble, and here comes Trump who is outside of that political class and they are terrified.

You come from that class.

That's absolutely right! And, you know, it would have been easy for me to say, "Let's go talk about Jeb Bush." I mean, I would've done my soldierly best if he'd been nominated. But I really felt it was time to have a bit of a revolution here.

What happens for you after November?

I'm not looking for a job to go back to the White House. I've been there and done that. I'm having a great time at CNN.

So you might just stay in your lair.

On weekends I tend to drift away from cable news and watch the History Channel or the Smithsonian channel. I watch this endless stuff about the '30s and '40s, about Hitler and Stalin.

And I think, how could smart people of the day let monsters like that appear on the scene?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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