How strange was Wednesday's White House press briefing? Put it this way: Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs — who set a pretty high bar for weirdness when he was body slammed by a congressional candidate just 10 weeks ago — found the scene in the briefing room so strange that he joked about unwittingly ingesting a hallucinogenic.
Here's what happened:
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller was about to finish his turn at the microphone when, declaring that the last question was not sufficiently on topic, he said he would take one more and pointed to CNN's Jim Acosta.
If you are not familiar with the characters here, allow me to share quick bios. Miller is the aide to President Trump who made a memorable and rather authoritarian proclamation on TV in February: “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” Acosta is the CNN reporter who got under Trump's skin during a January news conference, prompting Trump to exclaim, “You are fake news!”
Quite a matchup, right?
It was actually terrible.
In an exchange that will surely delight Trump's media-hating base, Miller tore into Acosta without really engaging in substance.
Acosta quoted part of the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) and asked whether the Trump administration's newly unveiled, merit-based proposal for granting green cards is in keeping with U.S. tradition.
Miller responded with an obtuse answer about how “the poem that you're referring to was added later, is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
Acosta brought up Trump's pledge to build a wall along the southern border, in an apparent effort to put the plan released on Wednesday into a broader context. “You want to bring about a sweeping change to the immigration system,” he said.
Instead of tackling Acosta's big-picture question, Miller accused him of conflating separate issues.
“Surely, Jim, you don't actually think that a wall affects green-card policy,” Miller shot back. “You couldn't possibly believe that, do you? … Do you really at CNN not know the difference between green-card policy and illegal immigration? I mean, you really don't know that?”
Acosta referred to Trump's plan to award points to green-card applicants based on English proficiency and asked, “Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?”
Rather than defend the fairness of Trump's proposed emphasis on English skills, Miller said Acosta had just insulted English speakers from every country other than Britain and Australia.
“I am shocked at your statement, that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English,” he said. “It's actually — it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree. … This is an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would know English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world. Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English, outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?”
Acosta's aggressive questioning style is polarizing, to be sure. He has become a favorite villain for Trump supporters, and even some critics of the president. National Review editor Rich Lowry argued after Wednesday's briefing that Acosta veered into advocacy by pushing Miller so hard.
But Miller's refusal to respond in an intellectually honest way sent the question-and-answer session off the rails. He seemed more determined to expose CNN's alleged bias than to make the case for Trump's latest policy proposal.