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CNN’s Jeff Zucker once feted Kamala Harris. Will that help or hurt in 2020?

Meet the Candidate: Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris is winning fans as a U.S. senator from California. Here's a quick look at the 2020 presidential contender.
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Kamala Harris is winning fans as a U.S. senator from California. Here's a quick look at the 2020 presidential contender.

CNN’s president, a media titan at the helm of a global news organization intensely covering the 2020 presidential election, has a longstanding personal rule against supporting politicians.

He’s broken it once ⁠— for Kamala Harris when she ran to become the first woman of color to hold the office of California attorney general a decade ago.

“Kamala is not just important for the city of San Francisco, the state of California, but for the entire country,” Jeff Zucker, then president of NBC Universal, told guests at a breakfast at NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza office in August 2009, according to reporting by India Abroad, a publication that has closely chronicled Harris’ political rise because of her Indian heritage.

Zucker is a powerful friend to have ⁠— a man worth $40 million who holds countless connections to America’s most elite quarters in media, finance and politics.

“If you’re plotting a long-term game, you need to plant the seeds early because everyone comes here,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant. “In order to run a network, you need to know money people and media people. If you have someone taking you through those doors of power, it makes life a lot easier.”

This week, Zucker’s network hosts the second Democratic presidential primary debate, where Harris will stand on stage as one of the most prominent White House contenders in a 2020 pack that is likely to get significantly smaller, perhaps rapidly, as donors begin to choose favorites.

Zucker’s friendship with Harris, however, could open her up to early attacks not from her Democratic rivals but from Donald Trump, given the CNN chief’s tortured relationship with the president.

“I could just see the tweets tumbling out now, I have no doubt about that,” said Jeffrey Lord, a former CNN commentator and Trump supporter. “If she becomes the nominee he would certainly go after that. Even if she doesn’t become the nominee, he would probably toy with that.”

A CNN spokeswoman confirmed the 2009 breakfast.

“Jeff hosted a small breakfast in New York for Kamala Harris when she was the District Attorney of San Francisco,” says Allison Gollust, chief spokesperson for CNN. “He was then CEO of NBC Universal, and was introducing the DA to some of his colleagues in an informal setting. He has seen her a handful of times in the last 10 years, all in his capacity as a journalist. His relationship with the senator is no different than any other national politician, and he has never endorsed her, or anyone, in any ca‎pacity.”

But at the Rockefeller Center breakfast, Zucker made clear his backing of a political figure such as Harris was not something he’d ever indulged in before. “This is in fact, the first time I’ve ever done one of these, and that’s because I have a very, very strict policy because of my job. I’ve taken a position that I completely stay out of supporting candidates of any party and try to stay out of politics entirely,” he said.

Zucker went on to lead CNN in 2013. Three years later, Harris won a U.S. Senate seat, serving as a springboard to her current presidential campaign. Zucker has never personally donated money to Harris, and Harris’ campaign characterized their interactions as infrequent.

“They talk when they see each other, like at the town halls,” said Lily Adams, Harris’ communications director, “but that’s really the extent of it.”

Trump and Zucker were once friends too, forging a mutually beneficial business partnership through NBC’s hit show “The Apprentice,” beginning in 2004. Around that same time at a dinner in San Francisco, Zucker met Harris, then a district attorney.

It was at the dinner with his then-wife, where Harris, “really knocked our socks off,” Zucker said at the time. “For better or worse,” he said, “I get to meet a lot of people and so it takes a lot to do that.”

As a result, Zucker decided to take the extraordinary step of hosting a power breakfast on Harris’ behalf to introduce her to “some of the leading movers and shakers in New York,” the publication recounts. Harris, at the time, was running to become California’s first female and black attorney general, and in search of national financial connections that a well-connected mogul like Zucker could provide.

India Abroad, in a story headlined “NBC chief Zucker stumps for Harris,” reported in 2009 that Zucker “found her to be unbelievably special,” and that the two maintained a friendship through telephone conversations and visits in New York. Zucker said at the time that “she was that impressive to me and that important, that special and just that incredibly exciting.”

When Trump launched his bid for president, CNN’s live, wall-to-wall broadcasts of the reality star’s raucous rallies were considered a crucial platform. Zucker and Trump reportedly chatted regularly as the candidate steamrolled through the 2016 GOP primaries.

But the relationship soured precipitously as CNN’s coverage of Trump grew more critical toward the end of the election and after Trump’s inauguration. It hit rock-bottom when the White House temporarily suspended the credentials of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta last year. Trump now regularly decries CNN as “Fake News.”

On Wednesday night, Harris will be center-stage in Detroit, standing among nine other Democrats as CNN broadcasts the second series of primary debates. CNN’s Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper will serve as moderators.

As the second-highest polling candidate on the stage positioned next to Joe Biden, much of the political world’s eyes will be fixated on Harris, who was rewarded by Democrats in polls for forcefully confronting the frontrunning former vice president on the issue of race in last month’s first debate.

Based on his prior assessment, Zucker is likely unsurprised.

At the 2009 breakfast, he pointed his guests to a New York Times report naming Harris as “among the 17 most likely women to become the first female president of the United States.”

“I guess that’s a good list to be on,” he said.

David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to dcatanese@mcclatchydc.com.
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