Media critic

Familiarity with history doesn’t run strong in the corridors of the White House. Not even very recent history.

To wit: Last November, the White House revoked the hard-pass credentials of CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, for whimsical reasons that withered in a federal court hearing. A federal judge soon ruled that CNN would likely prevail in its arguments that the stripping of the hard pass violated his due-process rights. Access restored!

The rebuke from U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly came quickly and unequivocally. Footage of Acosta entering the White House grounds with his hard pass circulated everywhere. It was a big embarrassment for President Trump and his colleagues.

Or was it?

On Aug. 2, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham notified Brian Karem, chief White House correspondent for Playboy magazine and a CNN analyst, that she’d reached a “preliminary decision” to suspend his hard pass for 30 days. Her explanation for such decision stemming from a much-talked-about clash in the White House Rose Garden on July 11. After Trump made some remarks on the 2020 Census following a “social media summit” including a group of eager Trump partisans, Karem asked the president to stay and answer questions, as he often does.

In this case, though, he didn’t. In the resulting vacuum, Karem jabbered with the Trump fans in attendance. As some mild trash-talking took place, in stepped Sebastian Gorka, a Salem Radio host and a former White House official: “And you’re a journalist, right?” To which Karem replied, “Come on over here and talk to me, brother. We can go outside and have a long conversation.”

Gorka accepted the invitation not to engage in a discussion but to blast Karem at close range. After marching across the expanse, Gorka yelled at Karem, “You’re a punk! You’re not a journalist! You’re a punk!” Karem thereupon pleaded with Gorka to “go home.”

Neither man comes off as decorum’s staunch defender, but the aggressor was clearly Gorka. The episode would have faded behind the Trump outrage of the day had it not been for Grisham’s Aug. 2 letter to Karem. The long and short of Grisham’s case is as follows:

As you know, President Trump has provided an extraordinary amount of access to journalists to ask questions. The White House has issued written rules of conduct governing questions at press conferences, but had not previously thought that a set of explicit rules was necessary to govern behavior by members of the press at White House press events. That is because it had previously been a widely shared understanding that (1) members of the press, at all times at White House press events, must act professionally, maintain decorum and order, and obey instructions from White House staff, and (2) disruptive behavior that interferes with the conduct of a press event or is otherwise a breach of professional decorum—including but not limited to taunting other members of the press, White House officials, or guests in an effort to provoke a confrontation—is prohibited. Such basic guidelines for behavior are necessary for orderly press events that are fair to everyone in attendance.

On July 11, 2019, you failed to abide by these basic norms ensuring decorum and order. As several video recordings show, after the conclusion of the President’s address in the Rose Garden to invited guests of the White House Social Media Summit, and as the invited guests were leaving, you openly insulted the President’s invited guests, stating that “This is a group of people that are eager for demonic possession.” One of the President’s invited guests, Sebastian Gorka, then asked, “And you’re a journalist, right?” In response, you verbally accosted Mr. Gorka in an apparent attempt to escalate your verbal taunts to a physical confrontation, stating “Come on over here and talk to me brother. Or we can go outside and have a long conversation.” Mr. Gorka then approached you, asking “Are you threatening me now in the White House? In the Rose Garden? Are you threatening me in the Rose Garden?” You and Mr. Gorka then loudly traded insults nose to nose, and Mr. Gorka left. You did not leave, and instead continued to engage with the President’s invited guests. Even after the U.S. Secret Service agent intervened, you continued to engage with and shout at other invited guests. As also recorded on video, after leaving the Rose Garden, you found, approached, and tried to again engage Mr. Gorka, ignoring a White House staffer’s repeated directions to leave and instructions that “the press are leaving now.” You eventually left after Mr. Gorka rebuffed you by repeatedly telling you that you were “done.”

Mere months after getting scolded by a federal judge for trampling due process, the White House trampled due process. Grisham’s letter accorded Karem one business day to “contest” her “preliminary decision,” whatever that means. She further indicated that if Karem wished to contest, she would review the materials and reach a decision by Aug. 7, though she later lifted that deadline to meet with Karem’s lawyers on Aug. 8. Karem submitted a statement to Grisham on Aug. 9, which you can read in full here. It’s a long explanation of Karem’s history at the White House and an affirmation that he never wanted anything more than to chat with Gorka. A snippet:

Gorka escalated events. He wanted the fight. I just wanted to talk. I thought he’d be a fascinating guy to talk to for my podcast and still do. I’ve interviewed Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, Republican communications consultant Alice Stewart, former Trump White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, comedian Carl Reiner, and reporter Sam Donaldson, so why not Gorka?

When it comes to written correspondence about disciplinary matters, press secretaries are no match for lawyers. To wit, Karem attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP wrote in his Aug. 5 letter to Grisham, “Your own letter amply demonstrates the violation of Mr. Karem’s and Playboy’s constitutional rights.”

Boutrous is one of the attorneys who defended CNN in the Acosta hard-pass case. His salvo feasts on Grisham’s own admission that the White House hadn’t thought a “set of explicit rules” was necessary for such events. Perhaps that’s because they hadn’t considered how their buddy Gorka responds when triggered. Boutrous noted that legal precedent in this area — the 1977 case Sherrill v. Knight, which was also at the center of the Acosta court fight — requires a “publish[ed] … explicit and meaningful standard” for hard-pass actions. An “explicit and meaningful standard” likely wouldn’t include a shadowy “preliminary decision” about a ruckus in the Rose Garden that had occurred three weeks in the past.

Nor do the White House’s missteps end with process violations, argues Boutrous. According to his letter, there’s viewpoint-based discrimination in Grisham’s action, stemming from these considerations: Gorka attacked Karem for being what “Gorka deems a fake journalist,” which is a slander propagated by the president himself; Karem was singled out for punishment while the president “celebrates” those who have behaved “far worse,” including the Montana congressman who body-slammed a Guardian reporter; and the timing of the “preliminary decision” appears connected to Karem’s question to the president on Aug. 1 about Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) claim that Trump is a pathological liar.

Grisham declined to comment on the record for this post. But who would want to defend this particular “preliminary decision,” anyway? It’s late, it’s poorly reasoned, and it paints Grisham into a corner. How would the Trump faithful react if she backed down from her “preliminary decision"? If she sticks with it, of course, the White House would face a redux of its Acosta court brawl.

Plus: Grisham’s “preliminary decision” notes the Trump is “aware” of it and “concurs.” What more do you need to know?

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Trump-appointed judge: Get CNN’s Jim Acosta back in the White House

Erik Wemple: The rumble in the Rose Garden: A battle of loudmouths

Kathy Kiely and Mike McCurry: The White House shouldn’t be in charge of granting press credentials

Dana Milbank: The White House revoked my press pass. It’s not just me — it’s curtailing access for all journalists.