Blacklisted: An Interview with Cheri Jacobus
The Never Trump conservative on blacklisting, catfishing, hacking & more.
In 2015, Cheri Jacobus (@CheriJacobus), a seasoned Republican political operative with a long and impressive resume, was asked to take a job with the Trump campaign. She declined. Months later, when she blew the whistle on one of Trump’s early lies—that his campaign was self-funded, and that he wasn’t in any way involved with a secret super PAC—the vindictive candidate and his goons did what they could to ruin her life. Trump denigrated her on Twitter. FOX stopped booking her. CNN blacklisted her. She was catfished. Her AOL account was hacked. She began to fear for her safety.
What happened to her is what many Republicans fear will happen to them, if they dare to defy Trump.
Jacobus was one of the first conservative Never Trumpers. She’s cultivated a large Twitter following—mostly by being right about almost everything for four years and counting—and parlayed that popularity into “America Reads the Mueller Report,” a project designed to expose Americans who may not have access to the Internet to the findings. You can read her work at A House United on the Maven Roundtable archive.
This is my discussion with one of the unsung heroes of the age of Trump:
Greg Olear: Your latest project is “America Reads the Mueller Report.” What is this all about, and why is it so important?
Cheri Jacobus: “America Reads The Mueller Report” is a half-hour program for local television, with celebrities and some “real” people reading direct excerpts from The Mueller Report. No political commentary and no spin. Just the facts (and a few clips from Mueller’s testimony).
Most people have not read the report, and many who only watch FOX or heard Bill Barr misrepresent what Mueller found erroneously believe Mueller exonerated Trump. It is vitally important that every American understand at least the basics of what Mueller found.
GO: And this is intended for local television?
CJ: We’re a 501(c)(4) non-profit, raising funds to air this on as many local TV stations as possible. Not everyone is on Twitter, or online much, if at all. While some people don’t care about the facts or truth, many who are misinformed or are not accessing accurate information simply don’t know it.
GO: You have assembled a great line-up.
CJ: We have now been on or will soon be on 25 stations in five states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Montel Williams, Jon Cryer, Morgan Fairchild, Willie Garson and Tom Arnold read key excerpts from The Mueller Report, where folks will catch it just before the big football game, after the morning farm show, or between their favorite game show and talk show.
GO: That is a brilliant idea. Thank you for making that happen.
GO: You are one of the original Republican Never Trumpers. But unlike some of your colleagues, who have landed book deals and gigs running quixotic presidential campaigns for longshot candidates, your aversion to Trump has cost you professionally. This despite being right about almost everything for the last four years.
CJ: It has, indeed, turned into a “cottage industry” for some, and I do believe mission creep has set in to the point where there is an “Establishment” Never Trump that has lost sight of the mission. You can’t be “a little bit Never Trump”—it’s like being “a little bit pregnant.” It never occurred to me that speaking truth to power was a career move. Maybe I’ll end up writing a book after all.
GO: I hope you do.
Unlike those Never Trump colleagues, you got to see Trump, or at least his campaign, up close and personal, and early on. In the spring of 2015, they actually tried to recruit you to be the campaign’s comms director. How did that come about?
CJ: A friend of 30 years was heading over to work on that Trump super PAC (the one Lewandowski and Trump later lied about, claiming they knew nothing about it, even though it was launched in Trump Tower). He was trying to get me to be Trump’s campaign communications director. As a courtesy to an old friend, I deflected and merely agreed to lunch. He brought along Corey Lewandowski, who I’d never met or heard of, and he did this without telling me in advance. It was a sort of an ambush. Lewandowski then admitted he was having a difficult time getting good people to meet with him. He said Kellyanne Conway had “stood him up” (his phrase) for a meeting and I later learned Ari Fleischer had turned down Cohen when he approached him to work for the campaign.
GO: Does Lewandowski smell overpoweringly of aftershave? He looks like a guy who routinely bathes in Drakkar Noir.
CJ: Stop it.
GO: Sorry, dumb question, but I had to know.
CJ: But I do recall in that second meeting he stormed into the office and ripped off his tie, cursing out “Mr. Trump” for forcing all of the guys in the office to wear a tie at all times—even in the summer.
GO: That’s what Fred Trump made Donald do! So Lewandowski admits to you that he’s having problems arranging meetings. Not just getting people to work for him--just convincing anyone good to even CONSIDER doing so. Which is kind of a shitty sales pitch. “Hi, Cheri, no one else will meet with me, but do you want this terrible job?”
CJ: Well, that was why I was not told he’d be at the casual lunch I was having with an old friend and colleague. After stalling for at least three weeks, I agreed to a second meeting.
CJ: As a consultant, I take lots of meetings, and I speak with lots of campaigns, candidates, people thinking about running for office—it’s what I do. In fact, this was the second presidential campaign of that cycle that had approached me about working for them.
GO: Makes sense. The essence of politics is working with people with whom we disagree. Why did you turn down the Trump job?
CJ: I witnessed extremely alarming, volatile and unprofessional behavior on the part of Lewandowski—behavior the rest of the world would witness later—and even called my mother when I left Trump Tower and was out on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, to tell her about this jerk. She advised me to be nice to my friend who tried to recruit me, and not to burn that bridge.
GO: How did your friend react the meeting?
CJ: My friend texted me to tell me how Corey really liked me, and was afraid he was too rough and liked that I didn’t get rattled or “flustered.”
GO: In other words, “He liked that you didn’t object to him being a complete asshole.”
CJ: I’m not easily intimidated, so there should be no reason to expect I’d react in any way that should matter to him. I politely shifted the focus away from my reaction to Corey’s behavior, to focus on Corey’s behavior and meltdown, saying that Corey was an “emotional guy in a big job” (meaning, a hothead little jerk who was in way over his head). A day later (still adhering to my mother’s advice to be nice) I let my friend know I didn’t cotton to Lewandowski’s “hazing,” thanked him for thinking of me, and wished him all the best working on the Trump super PAC. He left the Trump exploratory committee a few weeks later and never went to work for that super PAC.
GO: So: Corey Lewandowski told you in May of 2015 that Trump had a super PAC, despite denying that he had a super PAC. Can you explain why this detail wound up being so relevant?
CJ: Campaigns and super PACs are to have no collusion. It’s illegal. But the reason this Trump super PAC mattered was because Trump claimed that he had no sanctioned super PAC. He claimed he was self-funding because he was “really rich” and no one would own him or control him, and he smeared other candidates for having super PACs. He was lying to his supporters.
GO: It was one of the earliest in a campaign and an administration full of outright lies—and like many of his lies, it was pure projection: accusing the opponent of what he himself was doing.
CJ: When the Washington Post reported on the Trump super PAC in October 2015, Trump and Lewandowski lied and said they had nothing to do with it and knew nothing about it. In fact, Corey told me all about the super PAC in our meetings, and even was asking someone (while in my presence) to check on the status of the paperwork. (At the time I was a bit surprised he was being that reckless, even to the point of wondering if the FEC laws had changed and I had somehow missed it.)
GO: Maybe the tie was cutting off the flow of oxygen to his brain. Who was involved in the secret Trump super PAC?
CJ: Longtime Lewandowski pal and associate Mike Ciletti (Colorado-based) was the executive director, and Trump had even attended two fundraisers for the super PAC (prior to his campaign launch) including one at Jared Kushner’s parents’ home. Kushner’s mother seeded the super PAC with $100,000. (As a convicted felon, Kushner’s father is barred by law from contributing.)
GO: The Kushner family’s illegalities cannot be brought up enough. As I like to joke, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the treason.
GO: So you saw the WaPo story and knew what Lewandowski was saying was crap.
CJ: I saw that Lewandowski lied to the Post; he hung up on the reporter, and threatened to sue the paper. He claimed he didn’t know Ciletti. I then came forward to confirm that the Post report was correct, and that Lewandowski and Trump were lying. Lewandowski then had to recant, and Trump quickly shuttered the super PAC to make the story go away.
GO: You were, in a sense, a whistleblower. And you paid the price.
CJ: Apparently some in the media actually DON’T like it when people come forward to tell the truth when a public figure is lying. Not if said public figure is a good buddy and the goose that lays the golden ratings egg.
GO: Whoever could you mean.
CJ: I was immediately canceled on and blacklisted by FOX. Bill O’Reilly hopped on Gretchen Carlson’s show—midday—to lie for Trump and said Trump had no super PAC.
GO: Bill O’Reilly is a horrible human being. He’s there actively lying, in that angry, disrespectful way of his, on the show of a woman he was sexually harassing. What a disgrace. But for you, this only gets worse. Not only are you a PNG at FOX, but O’Reilly essentially put you on the hit list.
CJ: That’s when the targeting of me by Team Trump began. The “catfishing” of me began that day, where someone was trying to get personal info on me and also to find out what I knew about Trump and what oppo research was floating around about him. We later found connections to Colorado with the catfisher, including a cyber security private eye for hire who used to be in DC and did work for DHS, NASA and other government cyber work. The catfisher was NYC-based but used a Colorado cell phone, and a DC phone number on a domain registration for a fake law firm that used to be associated with that Colorado private-eye-for-hire when he lived in DC. There were other Colorado connections, too, which the FBI has.
GO: Colorado, eh? Stomping grounds of Mike Ciletti, who ran the secret Trump super PAC. And also, it must be said, although the two are not necessarily related—a hotbed of Russian mob activity.
CJ: Yes—and more, which was rather interesting.
GO: After O’Reilly’s harassment, Trump himself went after you.
CJ: Trump targeted me on Twitter a few times, especially after TV appearances. When I brought up that super PAC a few months later on CNN, Trump tweeted out that I had “begged” him for a job—twice—and got turned down, and was hostile as a result. This was, of course, a lie. And I could prove it was a lie (I always have receipts). His team came to me for two meetings, I did NOT come to them. And I said no way after the Lewandowski scene. I also defended Trump on TV after that (summer 2015), just as I defended other GOP primary candidates. My first public criticism of Trump was when he smeared John McCain’s POW status.
GO: One of many moments that should have spelled the end of his campaign. When did CNN ban you?
CJ: CNN banned me after the Trump tweets. They treated his lies as true and decided I was no longer credible as a political pundit—and had a “conflict,” as I was later told.
GO: The network that still employs Rick “Here’s A Photo of Me With Maria Butina” Santorum came to this conclusion. SMH.
CJ: And don’t forget, CNN hired Lewandowski after he left the campaign, knowing he was a liar, and a violent misogynist who had harmed and threatened reporters and news outlets.
GO: Oh, right! I forgot about that.
CJ: I tried to let them know that Trump was lying, but they would not talk to me. Lewandowski had given the same lie about me on Morning Joe—they at least put a note on their website that I disputed Lewandowski’s claims.
GO: How did you fight back?
CJ: My lawyer sent a cease and desist letter to Trump Tower. Trump tweeted the lie about me again. I had very few Twitter followers at that time, and he had millions. I was deluged with hate replies. I had no way to respond. He’d had me blacklisted from TV by dishonest TV execs, and was ruining my reputation, livelihood—everything. I was completely helpless against this assault.
GO: In effect, Trump made an example of you. “This is what happens when people cross me by telling the truth about my lies!” This is something all cult leaders do, incidentally.
CJ: Yes. But the frightening part was—and still is—when others in positions of power do his bidding or cave into the demands of his thugs and allies.
GO: This may help explain why a guy like Lindsey Graham, who once seemed like the most reasonable Republican on Capitol Hill, suddenly reversed polarity to defend Trump at all costs: fear.
CJ: I knew Lindsey Graham when he was a House freshman member, and worked with him when I was Communications Director for the House Education and Workforce Committee (he was on the committee) after the GOP won the House majority in the 1994 “Contract With America” historic election. I adored him—and I don’t recognize this Trump/Putin monster he’s become.
GO: Readers may find it odd that you were blacklisted from CNN, ostensibly Trump’s adversary.
CJ: The summer before, Lewandowski, in an attempt to impress me so I’d work for the campaign, bragged that Trump was great friends with Roger Ailes and Jeff Zucker and had both of them “in his pocket.” (At that time I was not aware or was not remembering that CNN chief Jeff Zucker and Trump were best friends and that Zucker had greenlit The Apprentice for Trump when he was head of Entertainment at NBC). I didn’t believe him at the time, but by February, I knew he was telling the truth on that point.
GO: Was there anything you did for CNN that did not air?
CJ: One reason I know Zucker was actively protecting Trump was that not only did he ban me after I brought up that super PAC, but the transcript from only that segment was scrubbed from their archives. The rest of the show is there. I was told this by a reporter who checked. (There were several reporters looking at this behind the scenes).
GO: In true Trump fashion, these idiots wanted you to sign an NDA concerning the super PAC. How did that come about?
CJ: Don McGahn (a former FEC commissioner) contacted my lawyer about the cease and desist letter, and wanted to know how we could “dial this back”—they did not want me to sue for defamation. My lawyer noted that perhaps Trump’s response to the cease and desist letter being yet another defamatory tweet was not exactly helpful—Trump had doubled down on the lie. McGahn said Trump would delete the defamatory tweets about me if I signed an NDA agreeing not to sue, and to not give any details about discussions I’d had in Trump Tower the summer before (i.e., about that super PAC this former FEC commissioner was helping Trump lie about).
I was inclined to sign. But then two things happened. I realized Zucker was banning me from CNN as a favor to Trump and had obviously been asked to do so by Trump, and so the damage was done. Trump deleting his tweets about me would do no good. Also, during that time, I realized I was being catfished, and it was likely and obviously Team Trump doing it. It was clear that I was dealing with some very bad people, and some unholy alliances with media, and I did not want to enter into any legal agreement with Trump where he would have any control over me and what I said or wrote. But he had successfully silenced me, and had me removed from the airwaves for telling the truth. By 2016, I’d been on TV as a political pundit over 1500 times since 1997. It was a marketing tool for my consulting business. As a single, self-employed woman, it was rather important. In one fell swoop by Trump, it was gone. And I’d done nothing wrong.
GO: That really makes my blood boil.
Trump must hate when people don’t sign his stupid NDAs. Especially women.
CJ: While I agree that Trump is a misogynist (we all know that), it’s clear that he fully understands that the men who run the media are very quick to believe something negative about a woman, and very quick to “punish” women, and make us simply disappear. We simply pay a higher price. Trump understood that implicitly—and still does. It still works for him.
GO: Frustrating, but true. We saw it recently with the Katie Hill resignation.
So you didn’t sign the NDA.
CJ: I refused to sign the NDA. I was told by my pal who had first approached me the summer before to work for Trump that McGahn was extremely upset and wanted to know “WTF was going on.” He thought we had a deal. There was now a target on my back.
A few months later I filed a lawsuit. I went to the authorities about the catfisher. They were watching it, but there was no federal crime yet, even though they knew what was going on and why. We even had a “who”—but the feds told me he was not working alone. Duh.
GO: The catfisher targeted you and Rick Wilson, both Never Trump Republican political operatives.
CJ: Rick was targeted because of his association with me at that time. We’ve known each other for years. When I was an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management for several years, I had him as a guest lecturer a couple of times, where he’s show his political ads and explain them to my class. He was hilarious and brilliant!
GO: Rick is great. Such a good writer.
CJ: In August 2016, POLITICO was coming out with an in-depth investigative piece on the catfisher that they’d been working on for more than four months. The final item was to call Team Trump for comment and to inform them that the investigative piece was about to be published.
No one but me, Rick and a couple of others and a few people POLITICO knew that this piece was being written. But as soon as Trump team were told—but before publication—my email was hacked and emails were deleted, including those from the catfisher with the IP addresses and other identifiers.
GO: How would deleting those emails have helped Trump?
CJ: IP addresses, lots of conversation and details. It was a way to immediately destroy evidence. The catfisher’s Twitter account was also immediately deleted, as a way to destroy the DMs. I’d already copied them, and my email provider was able to restore the deleted emails.
GO: Did you call the FBI, or did they call you?
CJ: Initially at the catfishing, I contacted Preet Bahara’s office. Later, once I was hacked, they got the SDNY (FBI) cyber crime division involved, and the investigation was officially launched—although there was activity prior to that. Now that the FBI had a federal crime, they officially launched their investigation. Little did I know that the other investigations into Trump people, hackings, WikiLeaks, etc., were already in play.
GO: Not for nothing, but hacking is all over both the Mueller Report and the Steele Dossier. The Internet Research Agency was not indicted for B&E, and Steele reports that he heard the Trump people actually paid Russian hackers—although that is still “unverified.” Hacking is the key to Trump/Russia, really.
CJ: Trump won, and there were then two instances (that I know of, although the FBI may have found more) where Trump team—high up, not bit players—were using information from my hacked emails. Later, the blanks were filled in. There was then a lot of activity and contact from the FBI, and they said they needed to meet with me. We’d already had dozens of phone calls and lots of contact, and now had a 3 ½ hour long meeting. I knew it was serious.
GO: So you knew this was going on but couldn’t talk about it. That must have been enormously frustrating, considering the adverse impact this had on your livelihood.
CJ: I had to sit on this for a very long time, could not publicly say there was an FBI investigation, as I got further ruined, smeared, and pounded by Trump and his allies and thugs—all while being blacklisted. I finally did start going public a little bit on Twitter, as I felt safer out in the sunlight rather than in the shadows. I had never experienced anything even remotely like this in my life, and it was terrifying at times. I also sort of figured out as time wore on that my case had likely become part of something bigger and broader. I knew the FBI “had” this around the time Trump was inaugurated and for sure a year later. So something was up. And I knew I had to take care of myself. No one really cared about my safety as long as there were bigger fish.
GO: Concern for your safety was paramount. You left your apartment and, indeed, New York.
CJ: I’d already been warned in February 2016 that Trump had “guys in Queens” who might come over and harm me. FBI told me that if they came across any information that indicated me or my family were in any danger, they would immediately let me know. I gave up my Upper West Side brownstone apartment with its lovely Juliet balcony across from The Dakota and a few doors down from Central Park for another UWS apartment that I shared with someone who traveled a lot, but also would help keep me safe. I also spent a lot of time back in Maryland helping to care for my ailing father. I eventually did give up New York altogether.
GO: Do you know who hacked your email?
CJ: When the investigation by SDNY cyber crime division expanded into these other areas, Mueller’s investigation was now underway. Last year, they told me they were passing my info to Mueller’s team. And yes, I have a very good idea who has my hacked email.
GO: A 400-pound man living in his parents’ basement? Seriously, though: Was the hacker American, do you think, or a foreign national? Say of a country like, I don’t know, Russia?
CJ: I believe Team Trump had me hacked, yes. And I believe he has had many others hacked and has long done so. Had I merely been hacked, I might not have known. I only found out because my emails were deleted. And remember, this occurred when POLITICO was letting Trump team know they had this big piece coming out, but before the piece came out. So yes, of course Trump had it done.
GO: Why does the hacking matter, in the grand scheme of things?
CJ: The reason this is important is that if Trump arranged for the hacking of my email and then was attempting to use my personal info against me (or try to) in court, this illustrates a pattern where he not only knows about the hackings once they occur and will use the information—as he did with the emails from Hillary and the DNC hackings as released by WikiLeaks—but that he is part of the planning of the hackings in advance. It means his presidency is over.
GO: Pence resigns, and Trump has agreed to name a vice president of your choosing who will replace him when he, too, steps down. In other words: you, Cheri Jacobus, get to choose the next president. Who do you pick, and why?
CJ: I think if Trump and Pence have to go, (and it’s clear they do), we should go with the next in line, as per the Constitution, which would be the Speaker of The House. She will not run in 2020, and we can rest easy that there is an adult at the helm as a democracy does its thing, and we can have a real election.
GO: I’m down with #PresidentPelosi.
Photo credit: Headshots by Barry Morgenstein
Hair & Makeup artist Rachel Bensimon