Mark Burns has done well for himself as a Donald Trump surrogate.
The African American pastor, in his Twitter bio, says he “can be seen on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC & Fox Business Network” and provides a link to a Time profile titled “Meet Donald Trump’s Top Pastor.” He got a speaking slot at the Republican convention, and the Trump campaign has sent out his quotes validating the candidate.
On Monday, this Trump mouthpiece took it upon himself to tweet a cartoon of Hillary Clinton in blackface, holding a sign proclaiming “#@!** THE POLICE” and saying, “I ain’t no ways tired of pandering to African-Americans.”
In the ensuing (and predictable) backlash, Trump senior adviser Boris Epshteyn tried to disown the surrogate, telling MSNBC’s Kristen Welker that Burns “speaks for himself.” Burns, unchastened, called in to the same show to defend himself, saying “we’re not playing the political PC game to make you feel good.” Only hours later did he delete the offending image and tweet: “I want to Apologize for my Twit.”
But there’s no way to apologize for all of the twits speaking for Trump.
Trump’s surrogates are a decidedly B-list group of Trump supporters who argue his case on the airwaves. Though all presidential campaigns have surrogate networks, Trump has a complication: Credentialed conservatives and elected Republicans generally won’t defend him. And so the cable news outlets scrape the bottom of the barrel to find people willing to make Trump’s case. Little wonder veteran GOP operative Kevin Kellems quit as head of Trump’s surrogate operation earlier this summer after less than two weeks on the job.
As Burns was provoking the blackface brouhaha, CNN was dealing with an ethical morass over Trump surrogate Corey Lewandowski, whom CNN put on contract as a commentator after he was ousted as Trump’s campaign manager. But it turned out Lewandowski continued to be paid $20,000 a month by the campaign; “severance,” the campaign said. Late Monday, ABC News reported that Lewandowski — still with CNN — was back to advising Trump, talking to the candidate almost every day and “running the show” at Trump rallies.
Yet Lewandowski is hardly the most exotic animal in Trump’s surrogate circus.
Al Baldasaro, a surrogate for Trump on veterans’ issues, said in a radio interview that Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason.” He also suggested Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who spoke at the Democratic convention, is a “Muslim Brotherhood agent.”
Surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes, a TV regular, said after Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine spoke in Spanish: “I’m hoping I’m not going to have to start kind of brushing up on my ‘Dora the Explorer’ to understand some of the speeches.”
Rudy Giuliani, once revered as “America’s mayor,” has become a punchline as Trump surrogate for playing doctor on Fox News: “Go online and put down ‘Hillary Clinton illness.’ Take a look at the videos for yourself.”
Surrogate Omarosa Manigault, once a contestant on “The Apprentice,” defended violence against demonstrators at Trump events: “You get what’s coming to you.” Andrew Dean Litinsky, also a former “Apprentice” contestant, defended a 78-year-old Trump supporter who sucker-punched a black protester at a Trump event: “It looks like good exercise.”
On CNN, surrogate Jeffrey Lord has distinguished himself by saying the Ku Klux Klan is “a function of the left.” After Trump said the U.S.-born judge in a case against him was a “Mexican” whose heritage disqualified him, Lord said those criticizing Trump were the real racists. And young Trump surrogate Kayleigh McEnany cheerfully defended waterboarding as a “bit of discomfort.”
Paid mouthpieces for the Trump campaign don’t fare a whole lot better. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen last year defended Trump against an old allegation by his first wife by falsely saying “you cannot rape your spouse.” Cohen recently became an Internet star when, asked on CNN about Trump’s poor poll numbers, he responded repeatedly and nonsensically: “Says who?”
Then there’s national spokeswoman (and reality TV star) Katrina Pierson, whose pre-Trump days include 2012 tweets asking if 9/11 was “an inside job” and lamenting that both President Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s fathers were born abroad. “Any pure breeds left?” she asked.
This month on CNN, she blamed the death of Army Capt. Humayun Khan (Khizr’s son) on Obama and Clinton: “It was under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that changed the rules of engagement that probably cost his life.”
Khan died in 2004, during George W. Bush’s first term. But no matter: In Trump’s surrogate circus, anything goes.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.