At 3:58 on a recent Wednesday afternoon in Washington, CNN’s largest control room was mostly empty but for a handful of producers hunched over control panels and, hovering behind them, a short, barrel-shaped, restless-looking man in a dark pinstriped suit and open white dress shirt: the president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker.
Zucker had spent most of the day holed up in a conference room, prepping two anchors who would be moderating a CNN Town Hall on Obamacare that night. Right now, though, his mind was elsewhere. It was two minutes until airtime for “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” and Tapper’s featured guest was the President Trump counselor and noted CNN adversary Kellyanne Conway.
Conway’s last interview on CNN, about a month earlier, had generated fireworks; she and Anderson Cooper spent nearly 25 minutes arguing about CNN’s report on the secret dossier of Trump’s ties to Russia. (Conway: “I know CNN is feeling the heat today, but I’m gracious enough to come —” Cooper: “I think you guys are feeling the heat.”) The tension between Conway and the network had since become a kind of B story in the larger narrative of Trump’s ongoing war with CNN, which the president had taken to characterizing as “fake news.” In response to calls for media outlets to boycott her, Conway told The Hollywood Reporter that she could “put my shoes and pantyhose back on and go on any show at any time.” And yet, when the White House offered Conway for Tapper’s Sunday morning talk show, CNN declined, questioning her credibility.
But that was a few days ago.