Press secretary Sarah Sanders cited Acosta’s brief confrontation with a White House press aide during Trump’s midday news conference as the reason for suspending his press pass “until further notice.”
During the 90-minute session at the White House, Trump snapped at Acosta after the reporter asked whether the president had “demonized immigrants” by calling a caravan of Central American migrants “an invasion.” After a long and tense back-and-forth, a female White House intern tried to take the microphone from Acosta.
Acosta held onto it and raised an arm to shield it, in the process making contact with the aide. “Pardon me, ma’am,” he said to her.
After their exchange, Trump told Acosta: “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN. You’re a very rude person. The way you treat Sarah Huckabee is horrible. And the way you treat other people are horrible. You shouldn’t treat people that way.”
On Wednesday night, Sanders accused Acosta of “placing his hands on a young woman” and said it was on those grounds that Acosta’s press pass was being suspended.
“President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his Administration,” Sanders said in a statement. “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.”
Video of the exchange showed otherwise. On Twitter, Acosta responded to the press secretary’s statement with, simply: “This is a lie.”
The White House Correspondents' Association called the White House’s reaction “out of line to the purported offense” and urged that Acosta’s press pass be restored.
Appearing on CNN on Wednesday evening, Acosta told host Anderson Cooper that he was “just trying to ask a question of the president.”
He added: “I didn’t put my hands on her or touch her, as the White House is alleging. I do think, Anderson, that this is a test for all of us. I think they’re trying to shut us down. I think they’re trying to send a message to my colleagues.”
Acosta said he learned that his access was denied from a text message he received on his phone. When he went to the White House for “one last live shot,” he said a security officer prevented him from passing through an entrance he has used for the past five years.
“I never thought that in this country I wouldn’t be able to cover the president of the United States just for asking a question,” he said.
In a statement Wednesday night, CNN accused the White House of retaliating against Acosta because of his questions.
“In an explanation, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders lied,” the network stated. “She provided fraudulent accusations and cited an incident that never happened. This unprecedented decision is a threat to our democracy and the country deserves better. Jim Acosta has our full support.”
The network also tweeted a video of the interaction “for the world to see.”
Sanders later tweeted a short clip of the interaction, writing: “We stand by our decision.”
Matt Dornic, CNN’s vice president of communications, responded by sharing a fuller video clip, writing: “You manipulated this video. The lies never end.”
Despite video, right-wing personalities continued to spread online the false allegation that Acosta had been seen “pushing and shoving a female White House aide.” A HuffPost reporter noted that the brief video Sanders shared was made by an editor from Infowars, the site led by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Acosta has been one of the most outspoken reporters covering the White House over the past two years, in which he has become a favorite target of insults lobbed by Trump supporters, particularly at the president’s raucous rallies.
“I think I’m just covering a story, honestly,” Acosta said in a 2017 interview with The Washington Post about his reporting style. “When the president of the United States calls the press ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the American people,’ ” he added, “I think that’s when you have to get tough and ask the hard questions.”
After news of Acosta’s press pass suspension broke, numerous journalists came to his defense. Jeff Mason, a former president of the White House Correspondents' Association, said that he was seated next to Acosta at the news conference and that Sanders’s characterization of what happened was false.
“I ... did not witness him ‘placing his hands’ on the young intern, as the White House alleges,” Mason tweeted. “He held on to the microphone as she reached for it.”
Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.