Press wins this round with White House

November 20, 2018

CNN and the White House press corps took the right step in pushing back against the Trump administration after it pulled the press pass of CNN reporter Jim Acosta. The press prevailed.

A week ago, during a post-election news conference, President Trump recognized Acosta for a question.

In case you missed it:

Acosta: Mr. President, I wanted to challenge you on one of the statements that you made in the tail end of the campaign in the midterms, that this …

President: Here we go.

Acosta: Well, if you don’t mind, Mr. President…

President: Let’s go. Let’s go. Come on.

Acosta: … that this caravan was an invasion. As you know, Mr. President ...

President: I consider it to be an invasion.

Acosta: As you know, Mr. President, the caravan was not an invasion. It’s a group of migrants moving up from Central America towards the border with the U.S.

President: Thank you for telling me that. I appreciate it.

Acosta: Why did you characterize it as such?

President: Because I consider it an invasion. You and I have a difference of opinion.

And things went downhill from there. Acosta questioned whether Trump had “demonized immigrants.” The president said that was not the case. When Acosta again insisted it was not an invasion, Trump told him, “You should let me run the country.”

At which point Trump moved on to another reporter. When Acosta tried to ignore that and open a new line of questioning — on the Russia investigation — Trump told him, “Put down the mic.” And when a female intern tried to take the mic, Acosta initially pulled it away before relenting.

“You are a rude, terrible person,” Trump said, providing a Trumpian conclusion to the exchange.

Did Acosta take it too far? Arguably yes. Reporters in these settings know it is likely they will get but one question. Acosta used his opportunity to challenge Trump on his misrepresentation of the approaching caravan as an invasion. Unsurprisingly, Trump stood his ground. One wonders what enlightenment Acosta hoped to obtain by pushing it further.

He did get plenty of attention.

But if Acosta crossed a line from aggressive questioning to grandstanding, the response of the Trump White House — pulling the reporter’s credentials — crossed any reasonable boundary.

It amounted to intimidation. It tried to send the message that if a reporter, in the judgment of the president, is overly aggressive in asking questions he or she risks losing access. That approach is in direct conflict with the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press. If allowed to stand, it would set a terrible precedent for the accountability of this and future presidents.

On Friday, Judge Timothy J. Kelly of the U.S. District Court in Washington ordered the White House to restore Acosta’s press credentials. The ruling came in the form of a temporary injunction, pending further adjudication of the CNN lawsuit. But on Monday the White House announced it would not continue a legal fight to strip Acosta of his press pass and CNN dropped its lawsuit.

In keeping with Kelly’s ruling, however, the White House did issue some guidelines, which the judge noted were lacking.

Among the rules will be one question per reporter, with follow-ups allowed at the discretion of the president, press secretary or other administration official at the lectern. If implemented fairly, this is a reasonable approach, but that is also a big “if.” The president and White House officials could well abuse the rule to allow follow-ups on softball questions, while shutting down those asking more difficult questions.

In response, members of the press corps should be prepared to set egos, competitiveness and their own planned questions aside to instead follow-up on a colleague’s question that was not answered. If the White House overreaches with these new rules the matter could end up back in court.

Press briefings have become indecorous free-for-alls during the Trump administration. The White House gets the bulk of the blame. Trump lobs insults at journalists, questions their patriotism and makes what should be professional exchanges personal. His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, often finds herself trying to defend Trump’s untruths, undermining her own credibility with reporters.

That is something the nation may well have to live with for at least another couple of years. But banning reporters is another matter, a far more ominous one. This time, at least, the courts stood up to it and the White House stood down. Americans should take some reassurance in that outcome.

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