The last four years have laid waste to many of the norms and supposedly uncrossable lines of American politics. But few scenes encapsulate how ridiculous things have gotten like the spat that led to the White House suspending Playboy White House reporter Brian Karem’s press pass.
A judge ruled Tuesday that the White House must return Karem’s pass — but not before laying out in excruciating detail exactly how we arrived at that point: to wit, a confrontation between him and former White House aide Sebastian Gorka.
The White House Rose Garden was particularly ripe for such a scene July 11, as right-wing “influencers” were invited to meet with Trump before the news conference and then allowed to attend it alongside the mainstream media that many of them deride as “fake news.”
Here’s what followed, according to the judge’s ruling, including the original citations. You can click on the yellow highlights to read my annotations via Genius.
On July 11, 2019, President Trump hosted a number of internet influencers and personalities at the White House grounds at what the administration called a Social Media Summit. At the Summit’s conclusion, the attendees were invited to the Rose Garden to watch the President deliver prepared remarks with the Attorney General. Unlike the Summit itself, the remarks were open to the White House press corps, so Brian Karem decided to go. Upon arrival in the Rose Garden, Karem and other members of the press were directed to a roped-off, standing-room-only press area that had been set up around the rows of chairs where the Summit attendees were permitted to sit. Some Summit attendees were already in their seats, and the atmosphere became, in the words of one press member, “unusually tense.” McAteer Decl. ¶ 12, ECF No. 2-9. Certain Summit attendees began photographing the members of the press and calling them “fake news.” Id. Among those attendees participating was former presidential advisor Sebastian Gorka, who at one point stood up to take a wide-frame picture of the press — calling it a “Fake News panorama.” Id.; Ex. 70 at 0:05—0:08.1
Ultimately, the President gave his remarks without incident, and when he finished, he turned to walk back into the White House. Karem called out in an attempt to ask the President a question, but the President ignored it and went inside. Ex. 60 at 0:00—0:09. Karem’s question did, however, draw a reaction from some of the Summit attendees. One shouted, “He talked to us, the real news.” Id. at 0:10—0:12. Another said sarcastically, “Don’t be sad, don’t be sad.” Id. at 0:13—0:15. Karem responded by smiling and making what was apparently a joke. Gesturing toward the seated Summit attendees, he said, “This is a group eager for demonic possession,” before saluting and turning away. Ex. 61 at 0:01—0:06.
Karem’s statement drew laughter from several of the attendees, but Gorka took it differently. Seated a number of rows in front of Karem’s position in the press area, Gorka turned around in his chair and yelled, “And you’re a ‘journalist,’ right?”—making air quotes with his hands. Ex. 60 at 0:21—0:25. With the event having concluded, Gorka and other seated attendees began to stand, and as they did so, Karem said, “Hey come on over here and talk to me, brother, or we can go outside and have a long conversation.” Ex. 61 at 0:10—0:14. Karem simultaneously motioned backward with his right thumb over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows. Id.
By the time Karem had finished his sentence, Gorka was walking briskly toward him across the Rose Garden — shouting, “Are you threatening me now in the White House? In the Rose Garden? You are threatening me in the Rose Garden?” Ex. 60 at 0:29—0:36. As Gorka approached, Karem took a few steps forward himself, but remained within the roped-off press area. Ex. 61 at 0:16—0:21. Karem, his voice now slightly quieter, explained “I said I’d be happy to talk to you.” Id. at 0:17—0:19. Gorka, still yelling, responded, “You are a punk! You’re not a journalist! You’re a punk!” Id. at 0:20—0:24. Gorka then turned and walked away, at which time some of the Summit attendees began chanting, “Gorka! Gorka! Gorka!” Ex. 62 at 0:01—0:08. While Gorka walked away and the crowd’s chant was ongoing, Karem raised the volume of his voice again, and twice said to Gorka, “Go home,” before shouting “Hey Gorka, get a job!” Ex. 61 at 0:23—0:29.
Moments later, another one of the Summit attendees, who was filming the scene on his phone, said loudly to Karem, “Hey, just for the record he’d kick your punk a--” (“he” meaning Gorka). Id. at 0:31—0:37; Ex. 62 at 0:09—0:11. From others in the crowd, this remark prompted a mixture of laughs and groans — and even an exasperated “Oh my God.” Ex. 62 at 0:11—0:14. Karem, meanwhile, responded to the remark by taking a couple of steps to his right and saying, “And that’s the measure of everything, isn’t it?” Ex. 60 at 0:48—0:53. By this time, Karem was (perhaps inadvertently) standing on the other side of the press-area’s demarcating rope, which had at some point fallen to the ground. Id. A Secret Service agent quickly noticed and approached Karem, who stepped back into the press area. Id. at 0:54—1:01. Karem and the agent then spoke for a few seconds, but the substance of their conversation is not audible in the various video recordings. E.g., id. at 0:54—1:01.
A few minutes later, after leaving the Rose Garden, Karem saw Gorka again — this time in the White House’s Palm Room. Karem walked over, put his left hand on Gorka’s right arm, and tried to explain that, in making his earlier comment, he had only meant that he wanted to talk. See Ex. 63 at 2:59—3:02. Gorka, however, disagreed, which prompted Karem to raise his right index finger and repeat, “I said ‘talk.’ ” Id. at 3:04—3:05. Gorka, who noticed that a White House staffer was trying to usher all press out of the room, responded by repeatedly saying to Karem, “You’re done.” Id. at 3:02—3:12. Recognizing that he had to leave, Karem tried to shake hands, but Gorka refused, so Karem walked away. Id. at 3:12—3:26.