The White House on Wednesday took the next logical step in its campaign against CNN, yanking the hard pass of Jim Acosta, the network’s chief White House correspondent. The move comes after a tense clash between Acosta and President Trump during a post-election news conference on Wednesday, during which the correspondent sought answers on presidential rhetoric on immigration and developments in the special counsel investigation.
On Wednesday evening, Acosta tweeted about the immediate impact of the White House’s action:
During the news conference, Acosta asked the president about his use of the term “invasion” to describe the caravan of migrants making their way north through Mexico toward the U.S. border. Though Trump started the session with cheery words about his party’s exploits in the midterms, he turned sour in his interactions with reporters — especially with Acosta, a longtime target of official ire from White House lecterns.
“I think you should let me run the country, you run CNN and if you did it well, your ratings would be much better,” replied Trump, who also called Acosta a “rude, terrible person.” As Trump tried to ditch Acosta and take a question from NBC News’s Peter Alexander, Acosta persisted:
Acosta: But let me ask, if I — if I may ask one other question —
President Trump: Okay, that’s enough.
Acosta: Mr. President, if I may — if I may ask one other question.
Trump: Okay, Peter, go ahead.
Acosta: Are you worried —
Trump: That’s enough. That’s enough. That’s enough.
Acosta: Mr. President, I didn’t — well, I was going to ask one other. The other folks that had —
Trump: That’s enough. That’s enough.
Acosta: Pardon me, ma’am, I’m — Mr. President . . .
The “ma’am,” here, is a White House intern who was assigned the undignified task of pulling the microphone from eager-beaver White House reporters, even as their questions were being cut off by the president. The task is a variation on the work performed by so-called White House media “wranglers” who, after ceremonial photo-ops — “pool sprays” in the industry vernacular — shout at reporters and photographers to get the heck out of the room. Clearing out the journalists has become treacherous for the wranglers because Trump can never seem to decide when he’s done answering a question. Wrangling is among the worst jobs in the Trump economy.
As the intern attempted to grab the microphone away from Acosta and pass it along to Alexander, Acosta wouldn’t surrender it. As he held tight, he said, “Pardon me, ma’am.” Here is the incident from different angles:
In a statement on the matter, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said:
President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his Administration. We will, however, never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern. This conduct is absolutely unacceptable. It is also completely disrespectful to the reporter’s colleagues not to allow them an opportunity to ask a question. President Trump has given the press more access than any President in history. Contrary to CNN’s assertions, there is no greater demonstration of the President’s support for a free press than the event he held today. Only they would attack the President for not being supportive of a free press in the midst of him taking 68 questions from 35 different reporters over the course of an hour and a half — including several from the reporter in question. The fact that CNN is proud of the way their employee behaved is not only disgusting, it is an example of their outrageous disregard for everyone, including young women, who work in this Administration. As a result of today’s incident, the White House is suspending the hard pass of the reporter involved until further notice.
CNN and the White House Correspondents’ Association struck similar themes in statement on the dispute:
Escalation of this sort wasn’t hard to foresee. At one point, Acosta reported on air that Sanders had made noises about barring him from future pool sprays if he asked the president a question. At another point, Sanders said to Acosta, “I Know It’s Hard for You to Understand Even Short Sentences.” At many other points, Acosta has sparred with Sanders and Trump, often over their anti-media rhetoric. And the president, of course, has anointed CNN first among equals as a target of his never-ending anti-media campaign.
The Erik Wemple Blog won’t say that Acosta on Wednesday presented a model of perfect decorum. When a White House emissary lunges for the microphone in your hand, give up the microphone and let the president’s petulant insistence on cutting off reporters and moving to other questioners speak for itself. And it speaks loudly: Whatever lines Acosta walked up to in the East Room, Trump, again, walked blissfully across, as he spoke disrespectfully to anyone who dared ask him a difficult question. When a black reporter for the PBS NewsHour, Yamiche Alcindor, asked Trump about the racial dimension of his self-identification as a “nationalist,” Trump accused her of asking a “racist” question. There were several other such examples.
Still more outrageous is the White House’s yanking of Acosta’s hard pass. The heavy-handed and authoritarian gesture boils down to a chilling reality: Your president has begun choosing who gets to ask him questions.
How unprecedented is this? From preliminary research, very. The Erik Wemple Blog asked George Condon, a longtime White House reporter and historian on matters such as these. He passed along a piece in Foreign Policy that outlined the case of Robert Sherrill of the Nation, who was denied Secret Service clearance because of the threat he posed to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Condon takes it from there:
In the early years after the [White House Correspondents’ Association] was founded [in 1914], it was the correspondents themselves who determined credentials to attend presidential press conferences. They often denied access to business publications and to individuals they did not think worked for legitimate publications. That is not comparable to today’s situation. In 1937, [President Franklin Roosevelt] drew very annoyed at questions from a reporter about whether he would run for third term. He didn’t ban him but he insulted him and told him to sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap. (Hard to find a corner in the Oval Office, though.) In 1942, he was furious at columns by John O’Donnell and gave a Nazi Iron Cross to another reporter and asked him to give it to O’Donnell. But he never banned him.
Since then, there have been several presidents angry at reporters. But I don’t know of anything comparable to this.
There is nothing comparable to this — on the issue of White House access and many, many other fronts.