The increasingly contentious fight between President Trump and CNN — and by extension the news media he has branded “the enemy of the people” — is headed to court.
CNN is suing Trump and other administration officials over the decision to suspend the White House press credentials of correspondent Jim Acosta after a conflict at a news conference last week.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, escalates an ongoing battle between Trump and the cable news outlet that he frequently accuses of disseminating “fake news” for its aggressive coverage of him and his administration.
“The wrongful revocation of these credentials violates CNN and Acosta’s 1st Amendment rights of freedom of the press, and their 5th Amendment rights to due process,” AT&T Inc.-owned CNN said in a written statement. “If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers our elected officials.”
The suit requests “immediate restoration” of Acosta’s “hard pass,” a press credential issued by the Secret Service that allows reporters access to the White House grounds, parts of the West Wing and secured areas during presidential trips.
The White House Correspondents Assn., a group of journalists covering the White House, and PEN America, an organization of writers promoting human rights and literature, are backing CNN.
Suspending Acosta’s pass “was retaliation, plain and simple,” Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Tuesday. “President Trump is entitled to hold a negative view of Acosta or any other journalist … but President Trump’s revocation of Acosta’s credentials is, simply put, out of line.”
The group, which provides legal help to journalists to protect their 1st Amendment rights, filed a brief supporting CNN. It says the White House move “aims to chill the constitutionally protected speech and newsgathering activity of other journalists.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the suit “just more grandstanding from CNN” and said the White House “will vigorously defend” against it.
CNN has nearly 50 holders of hard passes and “Mr. Acosta is no more or less special than any other media outlet or reporter with respect to the 1st Amendment,” Sanders said.
Trump has criticized CNN since the 2016 presidential campaign. Last year, he posted on Twitter a professional-wrestling promotion video clip altered to show him body-slamming and punching a person with the CNN logo for a head.
As CNN’s senior White House correspondent, Acosta frequently has been front and center in the dispute.
At a news conference Wednesday, Trump called on Acosta to ask a question, and Acosta was given a microphone. He began asking about Trump’s statements during the midterm campaign that a caravan of migrants moving toward the United States from Central America constituted an invasion.
Trump objected to the question, and the two sparred verbally back and forth. When Acosta tried to ask another question, Trump told him several times “that’s enough.” A female White House intern tried to take the microphone away from Acosta as Trump told him, “Put down the mic.”
Acosta initially refused. Video shows Acosta gripping a microphone as the intern tried to pry it away during the Wednesday event, and saying politely, “Excuse me, ma’am,” as he maneuvered to keep his hold.
Trump refused to answer Acosta’s follow-up question, telling him, “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn't be working for CNN.”
Later on Wednesday, Sanders issued a statement saying the White House was suspending Acosta’s hard pass “until further notice.” Sanders said that Acosta “placed his hands” on the intern and that his conduct was “absolutely unacceptable.”
The suit — which is being filed on behalf of Acosta as well as CNN — denies that allegation and says the suspension of Acosta’s pass means he effectively cannot do his job.
“This severe and unprecedented punishment is the culmination of years of hostility by President Trump against CNN and Acosta based on the contents of their reporting — an unabashed attempt to censor the press and exclude reporters from the White House who challenge and dispute the President’s point of view,” the suit says.
The suit says the suspension of Acosta’s credentials violates the 1st Amendment’s protection of free speech. It says the way the administration revoked the pass, with no direct notice to Acosta or a written explanation detailing the decision, violated the 5th Amendment’s protection of due process and the federal Administrative Procedures Act.
The suit cites a 1977 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia involving the White House’s years-long denial of a request for a hard pass by Robert Sherrill, the Washington correspondent for the Nation magazine, a left-leaning publication.
The ruling in Sherrill vs. Knight said that “the protection afforded newsgathering under the 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press … requires that this access not be denied arbitrarily or for less than compelling reasons.” The court said a reporter denied a hard pass must be given “notice of the factual bases for denial, an opportunity … to respond to these, and a final written statement of the reasons for denial.”
The CNN suit names Trump and Sanders along with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly; Bill Shine, the deputy chief of staff who handles communications; and Randolph Alles, director of the Secret Service.
To justify its decision to suspend Acosta’s credentials in the wake of an outcry, Sanders posted a video clip on Twitter on Thursday of the intern trying to take the microphone away from him.
“The question is: did the reporter make contact or not?” she said in a statement, backing off the earlier contention that Acosta had placed his hands on the intern. “The video is clear, he did. We stand by our statement.”
But the video, which reportedly came from the right-wing conspiracy website Infowars.com, only inflamed the controversy. It was doctored to amplify the contact between Acosta and the intern, with the speed altered to make Acosta appear to chop hard at her arm.
The suit says that Acosta did not initiate the physical contact with the intern and that she had “attempted to grab the microphone” from him.
“The staffer reached all the way across Acosta’s body, successfully latched onto the microphone, and physically attempted to remove it from Acosta’s right hand,” the suit says. “Acosta held onto the microphone, stated ‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ and continued to ask his question.”
In reaction to the suit Tuesday, Sanders appeared to pull back again on the earlier justification for suspending Acosta’s hard pass, saying Acosta “physically refused to surrender a White House microphone to an intern, so that other reporters might ask their questions.”
“This was not the first time this reporter has inappropriately refused to yield to other reporters,” she said. “The 1st 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.”
CNN said in its suit that the incident with the intern was simply an excuse by the White House to punish Acosta.
“The content and viewpoint of CNN’s and Acosta’s reporting on the Trump administration — not his interaction with the staffer at the November 7 press conference — were the real reason the White House indefinitely revoked his press credentials,” the suit says.