Jeffrey Lord was sitting at his home in rural Pennsylvania in July 2015 when the phone rang.
It was CNN. Donald Trump had just declared his presidential campaign, and Trump recommended Lord to the network as someone who could defend him. Maybe Lord, CNN asked, could explain why someone would vote for Trump?
Lord called a friend from his Pennsylvania church, who scrambled over to take care of Lord's mother, who is 96 and struggling with dementia, so Lord could get to the local television studio.
CNN soon hired Lord to appear regularly as an analyst. He appeared on CNN six times from March 22 to March 29, according to Media Matters, and says he's on air at least once "pretty much every day."
"All of a sudden, it was a deluge," Lord says in an interview with Vox. "The phone was ringing non-stop."
When he's not in the CNN studio, Lord often Skypes in from his home office in central Pennsylvania's Camp Hill, population 8,000. He moved to the tiny town in part to care for his mom.
"I'm living out here and talking to regular folks who don't have political jobs," Lord says. "In my political brain, I'm matching what Trump has been saying to what people in central Pennsylvania are saying to me. And it's the same thing."
Critics like Media Matters have attacked Lord as a Trump "apologist," and as an opportunist who will bend over backward to justify any and every outrage peddled by the Republican presidential frontrunner.
Lord thinks that criticism gets his role precisely backward. While he is accused of defending Trump out of blind devotion, he believes it is the rest of the conservative media that has become blind to Trump's appeal.
"The very, very insular nature of the Washington conservative media just doesn't get it," Lord says. "They're all talking to themselves, and — out in America, in the non-media circles — there's a completely different view."
How Lord left, and came back, to Washington politics
Lord is not exactly new to Washington: He worked there in the 1980s, for instance, as an associate political director in Ronald Reagan's White House.
"We were responsible for rounding up the political support in the countryside; if Reagan was talking about Gorbachev or the summit in Iceland, we'd explain the White House position to Republican committee people and state chairmen," Lord says.
After leaving politics in the mid-1990s, Lord went into screenwriting and acting, appearing briefly in True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and a Charlie Sheen flop that quickly went to video.
In 2004, he moved back to Pennsylvania when his father, who has since passed away, got Alzheimer's disease. He kept a foot in politics by working for a Pennsylvania state communications firm and contributing occasionally to his local paper, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the American Spectator.
Lord, 65, says many of his friends from his time working with Reagan have been shocked to see him support Trump. But he thinks his physical distance from Washington over the past decade has a lot to do with why they've parted ways.
"I think geography has a ton to do with his political understanding," says Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer and a friend of Lord's. "Jeff has had a unique perspective living in rural Pennsylvania."
The conservative media void that explains Lord's rise
On air and in his writing, Lord has peddled bizarre lies about a Democratic senator practicing "witchcraft," spread false myths about "Muslim training camps," and circulated outrageous conspiracy theories about a Hillary Clinton aide being tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
He also characterized the Ku Klux Klan on CNN one election night as a "leftist hate group," which is profoundly ahistorical and wrong.
But no matter how outrageous you find these claims, there's little doubt that Lord is speaking from a perspective that doesn't typically get a voice in either mainstream or conservative media.
Trump's rise has greatly annoyed two deeply entrenched branches of the Republican Party: 1) right-wing business elites, who dislike Trump's protectionist impulses on trade, and 2) far-right ideologues, often connected with the Tea Party.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, for instance, has repeatedly attacked Trump. "[Barack Obama] and The Donald are two epic narcissists," the Journal's Bret Stephens wrote recently. "Obama is a social democrat while Mr. Trump is a mercantilist."
Meanwhile, Glenn Beck's TheBlaze is a good example of the "counter-establishment" conservative press that has similarly derided Trump and backed his chief rival, Sen. Ted Cruz. Though the tonal opposite of the Wall Street Journal, Beck has said that "no real Christian" could support Trump.
It's not hard for cable news producers to find members of either faction to appear on their programs, but because both groups hate the Republican frontrunner, cable networks had to look further afield to speak on behalf of Trump.
"Many people in the conservative media are deeply principled, and they do not believe Donald Trump has any principles," says Ross Kaminsky, a libertarian columnist at the American Spectator and radio show host in Denver, Colorado, who is friendly with Lord.
This vacuum has created an opportunity for someone willing to speak for the millions of voters — and, by extension, the huge media audience — flocking to the Donald's banner. Lord was willing and able to fill that void.
Lord was defending "the elements of Trumpism" as early as 2013
Of course, Lord is not the only one in the media who capitalized on Trump's ascent: Breitbart and popular radio host Laura Ingraham, for instance, have both frequently embraced Trump.
But Lord is not an opportunistic convert, or at least not a recent one — he's been defending Trump for years as a columnist for the American Spectator.
"Lord decided that Trump was the answer much earlier than almost anyone else did," Kaminsky says. "Jeff wasn't one of the guys who jumped on the bandwagon. He was one of the guys who was driving it."
One of Lord's first pro-Trump pieces — a defense of Trump University from charges leveled by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2013 — came long before Trump was considered a presidential contender.
In June 2013, Lord wrote a paean to Trump's greatness called "Never Ignore Donald Trump":
"The real point is that Donald Trump is a man who gets up every single day and fights. He creates. He goes about his life each and every day and routinely makes contributions to American life. Some of those contributions are well known, huge and visible; countless others, one bets, are small, unknown and invisible.
And in the case of his famous television show, he is more than capable of entertaining along the way. Donald Trump is no apprentice -- he’s the real thing."
Later that year, the American Spectator, which has had mixed reviews on Trump, seemed persuaded enough by Lord that it decided to give Trump the T. Boone Pickens Entrepreneur Award at its annual banquet. Lord met Trump in person, and the two flew together on Trump's private jet from New York City to Washington, DC.
"While we're headed to the hotel they're briefing him on the status of a resort — it was [a] technical real estate kind of question," Lord says. "And Trump was very much the executive in charge."
Why many critics see a huge problem with Lord's relationship with CNN
There has been no shortage of critics of the relationship between Lord and CNN.
"I don't envy Jeffrey having to carry Donald Trump's decidedly fetid water every day," S.E. Cupp, a conservative commentator who is stridently anti-Trump and has sparred with Lord on air, said on CNN. "It's not an enviable job and he does it very well, but what Donald Trump says is indefensible. It's indefensible intellectually."
As the Washington Post's Erik Wemple noted, the network renewed that contract when it became clear that Trump's rise was no flash in the pan. Wemple has battered Lord repeatedly for defending several outrageous Trump moments, including, most recently, the spat between Trump and Cruz over their wives, Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz.
"The facts strip Trump of any claim to nobility for defending his wife. Lord had crafted a preposterous defense of Trump," Wemple wrote. "But that’s what he’s paid to do!"
Jeff McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University, says that Lord's work as a Trump defender represents a further devolution in TV news from reporters offering analysis to commentators acting as cheerleaders for specific candidates.
"We've gone from journalists who became commentators to political operatives who became commentators, and now we have specialists who have become commentators advocating for just one person," McCall says. "[Lord has] clearly figured out that if he criticized Trump or didn't advance the Trump position, he wouldn't be serving there."
Why Lord is the perfect surrogate for Donald Trump
I asked Lord why he is backing Trump, given the Republican billionaire's repeated breaks from conservative orthodoxy and Lord's ties to the Reagan administration.
"The voters want something done, and they're looking at Trump as someone who can do it," Lord says, adding that no candidate is perfect. "Whatever the obstacles, Trump finds whatever it takes to get it done."
This advocacy for Trump's candidacy inadvertently shows just why Lord is such a perfect surrogate for the Republican frontrunner. Like Trump, Lord is willing to offer half-truths and insults, and doesn't back down when confronted with the facts.
Lord's main defense doesn't pretend to be about principled conservatism or an intellectual defense of Trump's ideas. It isn't even really about politics.
But it's not incoherent, either.
Lord's critics see his unending support for Trump's scattered ideas as a cynical ploy to stay on air. Maybe. But if the essence of Trump's appeal is the strength of Trump himself, there's nothing inconsistent at all in defending whatever outrageous thing the billionaire has just said or done.
And for now, CNN has found just the person to do it.