‘We don’t want to give him ammunition,’ one White House reporter said of the president. ‘At the same time, we don’t want to be a doormat and just lie down.’
White House correspondents and media outlets widely view the Trump administration’s decision to pull CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass as an assault on the free press.
They also agree that it’s a trap.Story Continued Below
And it’s one particularly well set by a president seeking to escalate his feud with the media — and fully aware that the reporter he’s sprung it on, Acosta, has a showy, aggressive style that is divisive among his peers.
What’s not clear is what the White House press corps will do in response. Some on Twitter have called for a mass walkout or some other protest at the next media event, while Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote Thursday that CNN should sue the White House. But many reporters fear that such bold action would only give President Donald Trump the fight with the press that he and his base crave.“There’s been a lot of email traffic and conversation among reporters and news media executives as far as New York and California,” one reporter said, adding that no clear answer has yet been reached. The only agreement so far, the reporter said, is that “this is unacceptable.”
“I don’t know what the next steps are or should be,” NBC News chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson said in a tweet Wednesday night that captured the dilemma. “But I do know that the @whca and White House press corps — of which I’m a proud member — should stand up against this.”
There has been some action, albeit behind the scenes: White House Correspondents’ Association officials met with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday. And New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller circulated an email earlier in the day to several top D.C. media figures, gauging interest in arranging a meeting with the White House to discuss the issue. That type of discreet background lobbying currently seems like the most likely response from a press corps that wants to avoid a public brawl but also feels it cannot let a true offense slide.
“We don’t want to give him ammunition,” one White House reporter said of the president. “At the same time, we don’t want to be a doormat and just lie down … Part of it is doing it in a way that doesn’t feed into the narrative that the media is the enemy, and that’s real hard to do.” The reporter said the issue had been discussed at his outlet, but people were wary of taking Trump’s bait. “That’s one reason we’ve decided to keep a low profile,” the reporter said. “I think we would prefer to litigate this quietly behind the scenes with Sarah.”
Tensions between the White House and its press corps, always high in this administration, spiked Wednesday night when Sanders accused Acosta of “placing his hands on” a White House intern when she reached for his microphone at a presidential press conference earlier in the day. Video of the incident showed the contact between the two was much less dramatic. Sanders later posted a video that appeared to many to have been doctored to make Acosta appear more aggressive.
The “hard pass” Acosta held makes it easier for reporters to quickly enter and exit the White House complex. Those who don’t have the permanent badge can still get permission to enter, but the process can be cumbersome. It was not clear how long the White House planned to withhold Acosta’s pass or whether it would issue him daily passes.
The WHCA and CNN issued statements Tuesday night decrying the White House’s decision, as did numerous reporters and editors. But some reporters said the White House likely felt more emboldened to go after Acosta because his style turns off many of his press corps colleagues. Acosta’s profile has risen as he’s beefed frequently with Trump and Sanders and become, in return, their favorite target.
“They are going after him because they know he’s a divisive figure among White House reporters,” one member of the press corps said, adding, “Sarah and POTUS want this fight more than anything.”
One administration official said the White House was unified against Acosta and not worried about whether the video Sanders posted was doctored. The official described Acosta as a lightning-rod figure with the public, saying, “Defend his conduct at your own peril.”
Multiple reporters said the press corps needed to defend Acosta on principle — as one said, “You have to defend him because they could do it to anyone.” But they also agreed that it would have been easier to unite behind a less combative reporter.
“He has a way of getting under Trump’s skin, and he knows how to exploit that,” said one reporter who is against any sort of walkout or protest. “It’s important, I think, for all White House reporters to be at their most professional in this administration.”
The reporter made clear, however, that nothing Acosta did Wednesday justifies pulling his pass. Some other reporters expressed additional outrage because the hard pass is a security tool used by the Secret Service to regulate access to the White House compound and is not supposed to be used as some sort of bartering chip.As Times White House reporter Julie Davis tweeted on Thursday, “@Acosta’s behavior here, like it or not, does not disqualify him from the First Amendment-protected freedom to ask questions. Otherwise, how are we different from a place that has no freedom of the press at all?”
Davis‘ Times colleague Maggie Haberman added, “As Julie says, people can disagree with how he handled himself, and many do, but the White House has now unilaterally decided a reporter they don’t like can’t come into a government building, while sending around a misleading video about him, because it will please Trump.”
To date, press corps shows of solidarity have mostly consisted of reporters pitching questions back to each other if Sanders or another administration official cuts off a correspondent. In Tuesday’s press conference, NBC News’ Peter Alexander defended Acosta’s character after Trump insulted him.
In February 2017, some news outlets skipped a briefing in then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s office after others were barred. And there was widespread outrage in July when the White House barred CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from covering an event after it took issue with questions she asked during an Oval Office photo op, but her credentials were not revoked and the incident passed. During his presidential campaign, Trump also pulled reporters’ press access, including those from The New York Times, Washington Post, BuzzFeed and POLITICO. He could do the same on his next campaign — and, more gravely, continue the practice in the White House.
“Regardless of how we feel about Jim,” another reporter said, “White House reporters should be alarmed that the White House is lying about what he did and using what looks like doctored video.”
The reporter added, “It’s hard to encourage solidarity inside this group — and our competitiveness is something the White House exploits on a daily basis — but I think it’s going to be necessary.”
Annie Karni contributed to this report.
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