CNN star Van Jones has a habit of upsetting his fellow Black activists, progressive policy advocates, and liberal Democrats by cozying up to the Trump White House.
He did it again late last month, during the flap over a Black bird watcher in Central Park and a white Hillary Clinton voter who dialed 911 after refusing his pleas to leash her dog. Jones enraged Hillary loyalists—already exasperated by his willingness to concede her flaws as a 2016 presidential candidate in televised food nights with Trump acolyte Kayleigh McEnany—when he compared Clinton supporters unfavorably to the Klan.
“It’s not the racist white person who’s in the Ku Klux Klan that we have to worry about,” Jones said on CNN’s New Day. “It’s the white liberal Hillary Clinton supporter walking her dog in Central Park… But the minute she sees a Black man, who she does not respect, or has a slight thought against, she weaponized race like she had been trained by the Aryan Nation.”
More recently, on June 16, the 51-year-old Jones—a Yale Law School-trained attorney and former green energy jobs adviser in the Obama administration—provoked even more liberal distress and anger when he ladled praise on a so-called police reform initiative by President Donald Trump.
In this instance, however, he was slyly applauding himself.
Jones went on CNN’s Inside Politics with John King and Anderson Cooper 360 to enthusiastically commend Trump’s executive order—even as it was being criticized as cynical and unproductive by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and “delusional” by the Color of Change, an influential racial justice organization that Jones himself co-founded in 2005.
CNN viewers weren’t informed that he had actually attended secret White House meetings with his new friend Jared Kushner, discussing ways to frame the presidential project.
“In a tough situation Van has shown me that he’s got true character. He’s focused on the right things.”
— Jared Kushner to The Daily Beast
According to a knowledgeable White House source, who expressed satisfaction that there were zero leaks, Jones and California human rights attorney Jessica Jackson, who runs #cut50, a prison-reform group that Jones also founded, actively participated with law enforcement officials and White House staffers to help fashion the order and guide the politics of the discussion to what they considered “the sweet spot” between law enforcement and “the reasonable middle” and “the reasonable left.”
Skyping from his Los Angeles home, with a biography of Nelson Mandela and a Black Panther graphic novel visible on the bookshelf behind him, Jones told viewers of CNN’s noon show Inside Politics: “The executive order is a good thing, mainly because you saw the support of law enforcement there… There is movement in the direction of a database for bad cops. We have never had a federal database for bad cops, that’s why all these cops go all over the place doing bad stuff… The chokeholds, that’s common ground now between Nancy Pelosi and Trump. Good stuff there.”
Hours later, Jones doubled down on Anderson Cooper 360—again without disclosing his role advising the Trump White House. “What do you make of this executive order?” Cooper asked him.
“I think it’s pushing in the right direction,” Jones told the CNN anchor. “What you got today is, I think, a sign that we are winning,” he added. “Donald Trump has put himself on record saying we need to reform the police department… We are winning! Donald Trump had no plan a month ago to work on this issue at all. The fact that we are now in the direction of moving forward, I think, is good.”
During a Rose Garden ceremony that was actually a Trump campaign event—at which the president defended the police, touted his commitment to “law and order,” boasted about the stock market and the pre-coronavirus economy, and attacked Joe Biden—Trump was flanked by uniformed officers and police union officials as he signed the executive order in response to the pandemic of unjustified killings of unarmed Black Americans by white cops.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was quick to call the event “a photo op” and the executive order “seriously short of what is required”; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer panned it as “weak tea” and the Rev. Al Sharpton—a longtime ally of Jones going back to the 1990s, when Jones was a self-avowed “radical” and social justice activist in Oakland—derided it as “toothless and meaningless” because it gives lip service, but no legal mandate, to banning chokeholds (unless officers decide their lives are at risk), improving police training, making use of mental health professionals, and keeping a national registry of bad cops.
“I did not think the executive order was worth the paper it was written on,” Sharpton told The Daily Beast. “Van’s experiment with Trump is a case of him having more faith than I have, but I’m not going to attack him for doing it…I think he’s well-intentioned, but I think he totally underestimates the kind of guy he’s dealing with. I just disagree that the people he’s dealing with have a sincere bone in their body. But I can’t fault him for trying.”
Among Jones’ many critics on the left, actor Jeffrey Wright was at once harsh and perceptive as he watched Jones compliment Trump’s policing initiative: “Smells like Van Jones helped Kushner craft this exec order, so he touts it. ‘You can’t polish this turd,’ he said of Trump’s delinquency, yet here he is with boot black & rag,” Wright tweeted.
“Jones’ job appears to be making Republican policy palatable to black people. So expect him to call this new proposal progress,” wrote Jones detractor Stephen A. Crockett Jr., a columnist for The Root. Quoting Malcom X, Crockett added sarcastically: “‘Hey look, the knife went from being 9 inches in your back to being only 6 inches in your back,’ (Van Jones’ voice).”
Neither Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, nor Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, responded to interview requests. Jones, meanwhile, declined to speak to The Daily Beast for this story. A member of his public relations staff explained that “due to his contractual obligations with CNN/Turner, he’s limited in what press he can do outside of their network.”
CNN, meanwhile, wouldn’t comment on the network’s failure to disclose Jones’s behind-the-scenes advisory role in shaping Trump’s executive order while offering accolades for an initiative he helped create.
The circumstance was similar in kind, if not in degree, to an infamous incident 40 years ago in which Washington Post columnist George F. Will praised Ronald Reagan’s debate performance against President Jimmy Carter without disclosing that Will had helped coach the then-Republican nominee in debate practice sessions.
“I find that in politics, people get in uncomfortable situations, and that’s when you get to see what a person’s character really is,” Kushner told The Daily Beast during a brief phone conversation. “And in a tough situation Van has shown me that he’s got true character. He’s focused on the right things.”
“[Van] Jones’ job appears to be making Republican policy palatable to black people.”
— Stephen A. Crockett Jr., columnist for The Root
By one knowledgeable account, it was CNN’s politics czar, Sam Feist, the network’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president, who introduced Kushner to Jones; at the time Jones was oscillating between making positive noises about Trump, who happens to be Kushner’s father-in-law, and trashing the new president.
“Donald Trump is a horrific jackass,” Jones said during a February 2017 speech at John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice. “He’s one of the worst people ever born. He is. You can’t be any worse than him, unless you like chopping the heads off of small kittens every day. I don’t know what you could do to be worse.”
Barely a week later, Jones effusively praised a moment in Trump’s first State of the Union address when he led a lengthy standing ovation for the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens—who was killed in a botched and ill-planned military adventure in Yemen (a failure for which Trump had typically blamed Barack Obama).
“He became president of the United States in that moment. Period,” Jones claimed. “[T]hat was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics. Period…For people who had been hoping that he would become unifying, hoping that he might find some way to become presidential, they should be happy with that moment.” (In an interview last year with The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, Jones declared defiantly that he remains “proud” of that wildly hyperbolic and hardly prophetic assessment.)
Kushner—who became interested in criminal justice and prison reform after his father, New Jersey real estate magnate Charles Kushner, was sent to the federal pen in 2005 for campaign finance violations, tax evasion, and witness tampering—told CNN’s Feist that the White House was planning to roll out a criminal justice reform policy initiative and pleaded for fair coverage from CNN.
Feist recommended that he speak to Jones, telling Kushner that the CNN personality was passionate about the issue.
“He was someone I’d seen on television, so I was deeply skeptical,” Kushner told The Daily Beast. “But I said I’d be happy to speak to him, and we had a good chat. And then we just started working together. And what I saw, with him, was that he had a lot of courage, when other people play politics.”
By most accounts, Kushner and Jones became fast friends; Jones has been an occasional dinner guest of Jared and Ivanka Trump at their mansion in Washington’s posh Kalorama neighborhood, and Kushner introduced Jones to Kim Kardashian West, a longtime pal—along with her husband Kanye—of Ivanka’s.
In May 2018, Kardashian West had successfully lobbied Trump to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old Black woman who had spent more than two decades in prison while serving a life sentence on nonviolent drug charges. In short order Jones— who beyond being a talented communicator is a world-class networker—befriended the reality television star, encouraged her interest in prison reform and arranged for her to study law, with an eye toward taking the California bar exam, under the tutelage of #cut50’s Jessica Jackson.
“I met Van several years ago and I’m honored to call him both a friend and mentor,” Kardashian West told The Daily Beast in a statement. “I’ve seen firsthand his commitment to helping those in need and his dedication, as founder of The Dream Corps [Jones’ umbrella non-profit], to empowering the most vulnerable in our society. Van has encouraged my passion on prison reform and he’s one of the first people I call for advice. I will forever be inspired by Van’s selfless work.”
Over the years, Jones had made friends with a glittering list of celebrities, including Jay-Z, Rosario Dawson, and Prince (a financial backer of Jones’s projects; Jones shed tears during several television appearances memorializing the iconic rock star who died in April 2016).
Jones also has counted among his pals Meghan McCain, Kayleigh McEnany, Mike Huckabee, and his former partners on CNN’s brief reboot of Crossfire in 2013, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the right-leaning yet Trump-loathing cable personality S.E. Cupp.
“Van is solution-oriented,” Cupp told The Daily Beast. “So he’s not all that interested in the politics of where that solution comes from, or even optics…Very few of us in the pundit space can claim actual policy wings, so I think his willingness to hear anyone out is a virtue.”
Indeed, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, consulted with Jones as he drafted police reform legislation, the so-called “Justice Act,” that Democratic critics have called woefully inadequate and effectively killed in the Senate.
“They did talk during the process of putting our police reform legislation together,” Scott’s spokesperson emailed, “and Van shared ideas for our team to consider. The JUSTICE Act was truly built up from bipartisan goals, and Van’s input was certainly a part of the process as we constructed the bill.”
“I will forever be inspired by Van’s selfless work.”
— Kim Kardashian West to The Daily Beast
Several associates of Jones, who asked not to be identified so they could speak freely, speculated to The Daily Beast that Jones, a divorced father of two, is motivated as much by personal advancement, fame and access to power and money as by altruism.
One former colleague described a vehicle dubbed the “Van Jones Media Machine,” in which Jones owns and operates his own production company, Magic Labs Media LLC, writes books, gives paid speeches, and oversees an array of non-profits as chief executive of the REFORM Alliance, which Jones’s official bio describes as “an initiative founded by Jay-Z, Meek Mill and six billionaires to transform the criminal justice system.”
For the past three years, Jones’s media career has been managed by the Jay-Z-founded entertainment company, Roc Nation LLC. Apparently he has been doing well enough financially with all his entrepreneurial enterprises to give up his salary as president of Dream Corps, which paid him $209,469 in 2016, $145,541 in 2017 and nothing in 2018, according to the tax-exempt nonprofit’s public financial information.
Jones’s brief tenure in 2009 as special adviser on green jobs with Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality ended abruptly with his resignation after then-Fox News personality Glenn Beck relentlessly attacked him for his post-law school past as a radical leftist who honored Maoist ideology—a phase Jones ultimately rejected to work within the mainstream political system.
Beck probably did Jones a huge favor by making him a cause célèbre. Jones, by some accounts, had been frustrated at being a mere cog in the Obama White House, and was acutely annoyed that White House senior environmental adviser Brian Deese, a younger man who happened to be white, had more clout with the first Black president than Jones did. Deese, these days a managing director and global head of sustainable investing for the asset-management behemoth BlackRock, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ironically, Jones has enjoyed far greater access to Donald Trump and his most powerful adviser, Jared Kushner, than he ever did to Barack Obama and Obama’s top aides.
“He goes places where others fear to go, and he is crucified in many ways for the decisions that he makes, but understands that this work is the work of our Creator,” said prison reform activist Topeka Sam, who met Jones at a Google event and began to work with him in 2016 after serving three years of a 10-year sentence on a federal non-violent drug conspiracy conviction. “We have to work with each other in order to get things changed, and have a better and just society.”
Yet Sam, too, initially resisted Jones’s invitation to join him in meetings at the Trump White House: “When Van invited me to the White House, I did not go the first time because people said don’t go, you don’t work with this administration, and nothing’s going to come of it…I didn’t go the first time because people I look up to told me, ‘Don’t go.’ They told me it would hurt my career and any aspirations that I had of my own.”
Sam ultimately rejected that advice and participated in a White House panel with Jones, Kushner, Jessica Jackson and others, and shared her insights about prison reform.
“For me, going into the Trump White House looked like the backyards of the families I lived next door to,” said Sam, who grew up in the only black family in a suburban Long Island neighborhood. “People might say, ‘that’s not my president,’ but the reality is Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
Jones “understands that when you’re going against the grain, you’re going to get pushback, you’re going to get attacked,” she said. “It unfortunately is the way of the world.”
NY1 anchor Errol Louis—who talked with Jones about his upbringing and religious traditions during the John Jay College event at which Jones was honored as a Justice Trailblazer—said his motivations are less complicated, and perhaps purer, than some would believe.
“He’s a Bible-believing Christian,” Louis told The Daily Beast, citing Jones’ speech in which he talked about his sheltered small-town childhood in Jackson, Tennessee, the son of educators; he described himself as a bookish “nerd” who weighed 87 pounds and wore glasses; his resolve to fight injustice, he told the audience, came from his experience of being bullied.
He never drank alcohol or did drugs, he said, and he was so shocked when he got to Yale and witnessed his law school classmates doing so much of both, among other things, that he phoned his grandmother—because he was too afraid to talk about it with his strict and straitlaced father—to ask what he should do about such rampant sinning.
She said “pray,” Jones recounted.
Jones also noted the hypocrisy that allowed elite Yale students to engage in such activities with impunity, while Black kids in New Haven’s inner city were arrested and received harsh jail time for the same behavior.
Van Jones is not a journalist, he’s an activist and advocate. He made no secret of working with the Trump White House and members of Congress to pass the criminal justice and prison reform legislation known as “The First Step Act.”
“The Messy Truth”—to use the title of one of the CNN programs that Jones has hosted over the years—is that the cable outlet has repeatedly blurred the lines by placing him in journalistic roles, as when he grilled newsmakers and pop culture celebrities on The Van Jones Show, which ran every other Saturday night for 43 episodes on the cable outlet starting in January 2018, or when he conducted a softball interview with Kushner at the CNN Citizen conference in October 2018.
“Van Jones was a tremendously important ally in getting the First Step Act over the finish line and signed into law,” New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a principal author of the law along with Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins, told The Daily Beast. “During the process of trying to move the bill forward in the House, there were some in the progressive community who strongly disagreed with the effort to find common ground with the Trump administration because of inherent distrust of the president.”
Jeffries noted that he and Jones, among others—including such House Democrats as Reps. Karen Bass and Cedric Richmond—“took a lot of criticism from some quarters on the left for being foolish enough to think that we could actually get something done. But we did. And at the end of the day, the legislation was supported by the ACLU and the Koch brothers, the NAACP and the Heritage Foundation.”
Jeffries added: “Van Jones worked the phones and talked to House Democrats. He’s particularly close to Keith Ellison and Tulsi Gabbard”—the former Minneapolis congressman, now Minnesota’s attorney general, and the Hawaii congresswoman, respectively, who were both dubious of the effort. “He talked to them and helped facilitate their support, which was incredibly important,” Jeffries said.
Gabbard, who has become an especially close friend and sat for an interview on The Van Jones Show, told The Daily Beast in a statement: “Van is a deeply caring and compassionate person who is actually genuinely concerned about other people and the future of our country. He’s more concerned about helping people than the politics of who gets credit for helping them.”
Kushner, for his part, said: “We would not have been able to make this a bipartisan deal had it not been for Van.”
“I think [Van] is well-intentioned [to work with Trump], but I think he totally underestimates the kind of guy he’s dealing with. ”
— Rev. Al Sharpton to The Daily Beast
“It was a step in the right direction,” said Sharpton, who recalled, however, that when Jones encouraged him to attend the Oval Office signing ceremony, “I said, ‘I’m not going to the White House with Donald Trump,’ and Van said, ‘No, he won’t embarrass you,’ and I said, ‘Why put yourself in that position?’”
On Dec. 21, 2018, Jones stood behind the Resolute Desk, amid a crowd of Republican and Democratic lawmakers along with Kushner and Ivanka Trump, for the bill signing ceremony.
When the president called on him to speak, Jones delivered an impassioned sermon on the theme of freedom: “In a country that is a democracy, we have the right to disagree….And where we disagree—on immigration, on climate change, on foreign policy—we should fight hard. But we have a responsibility—where we do agree—to work together hard…And when you’re trying to help people on the bottom, sir, I will work with or against any Democrat, with or against any Republican, because there is nothing more important than freedom. So thank you, sir.”
Sharpton recalled: “True to form, two or three weeks later, Trump attacked Van and me. That’s Trump. You can’t trust Trump. He’s a con man. I’m not giving a photo op to Trump, and I’m not going to take back that I think he’s a racist.”
In a stream-of-consciousness October 2019 speech to a sympathetic audience at a White House summit for young Black leadership, Trump trashed Sharpton—“Al’s a con man, we all know that…sort of a third-rate con guy”—and complained at meandering length that Jones, while listing various people who had helped pass criminal justice reform, had failed to credit and thank him for signing the First Step Act 10 months earlier.
“I kept waiting for my name,” Trump told the group, adding that he called out to Melania as he watched Jones on TV, “Darling come over here, I’m gonna have a great little name-mention…He didn’t name me! I’m the one that did it! I called up Jared—right, Jared?—and said what the hell is this?”
Trump then recounted how Jones had called for his defeat in 2020. “And then he spoke to Jared and he apologized, didn’t he?” Trump claimed.
“But I don’t accept those apologies,” the president said. “Van Jones! He’s another beauty.”