CNN is suing the White House to demand the immediate return of press credentials to its reporter Jim Acosta after the media pass was revoked last week following a high-profile public contretemps with Donald Trump during a press conference.
The US-based cable news giant’s legal action against Trump and several of his senior aides marks a major escalation in the continuing crisis of relations between the US president and what he calls “fake news” and the “enemy of the people”. The cable news network has been at the center of Trump’s war against the “mainstream media”. Within that Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, has become target number one.
Now CNN is hitting back. It lodged its lawsuit on Tuesday morning with a federal district court in Washington, demanding the immediate return of Acosta’s so-called “hard pass”, media credentials that are routinely awarded to political reporters that allow swift access to White House grounds.
Jeff Zucker, CNN’s worldwide president, wrote in a memo to staff that “we will always stand up for our rights. That is why we have filed our suit.”
He added: “The first amendment grants the right of all journalists to hold those in power accountable and ask tough questions.”
The pass was revoked last Wednesday after Acosta engaged in robust questioning of the president during the lengthy press conference at the White House after the previous day’s midterm elections. The reporter in particular asked Trump why he had called the caravan of Central American asylum seekers headed towards the US border an “invasion” when it was still many hundreds of miles to the south.
Trump fired back that Acosta was a “rude, terrible person”. The White House press secretary later followed up by accusing Acosta of “placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern”.
Video footage of the press conference showed the accusation to be false. A doctored version of the video showing the interaction between Acosta and an intern who tried to take the microphone from him after Trump told the reporter to stop asking questions was later posted on social media by Sarah Sanders. But it had been speeded up to give the impression that Acosta had aggressively thrust his arm at the intern, which he had not.
In a statement, CNN said it was bringing the lawsuit against the White House on behalf of all journalists, not just CNN.
“While the suit is specific to CNN and Acosta, this could have happened to anyone. If left unchallenged, the action of the White House would create a dangerous chain effect for any journalist who covers our officials,” the statement said.
The lawsuit was directed at Trump by name as well as several of his top aides including the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, the director of communications, Bill Shine, and Sanders.
One of the country’s leading first amendment lawyers, Floyd Abrams, told the Guardian that CNN’s litigation was well supported by first amendment principles. “A journalist may not be stripped of access because of distaste for his questions, a desire to retaliate against him for prior coverage or frustration at what the president may view as a hostile attitude,” he said.
The White House does have the right to take steps against reporters who make it impossible to proceed in a reasonable fashion, Abrams said. But even in those cases, legal precedent means that the correspondent would be “entitled to a statement of how he had supposedly transgressed, a chance to reply and (according to one case) a written statement of the basis for his exclusion”.
The lawsuit has been strongly backed by the White House Correspondents’ Association that represents all reporters covering the White House. It said that “the president of the United States should not be in the business of arbitrarily picking the men and women who cover him”.
The White House issued a lengthy statement on Tuesday morning.
It began: “We have been advised that CNN has filed a complaint challenging the suspension of Jim Acosta’s hard pass. This is just more grandstanding from CNN, and we will vigorously defend against this lawsuit.”
The statement went on to say that CNN has almost 50 additional hard pass holders, “and Mr Acosta is no more or less special than any other media outlet or reporter with respect to the first amendment”.
The White House said this was not the first time Acosta had refused to “yield to other reporters” during a press conference. “After Mr Acosta asked the president two questions – each of which the president answered – he physically refused to surrender a White House microphone to an intern, so that other reporters might ask their questions.”
It concluded: “The first amendment is not served when a single reporter, of more than 150 present, attempts to monopolize the floor. If there is no check on this type of behavior it impedes the ability of the president, the White House staff, and members of the media to conduct business.”
However, on the day, many of the other reporters present asked Trump more than one question, including asking follow-up questions.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the White House’s removal of Acosta’s pass “un-American”. It said: “It shouldn’t take a lawsuit from CNN to remind the president of the first amendment. The White House should reverse its decision immediately.”
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