WH backs down, fully restores Acosta's pass

The White House just backed down in the fight over the press pass belonging to CNN's chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. CNN's Brian Stelter has the latest.

Posted: Nov 20, 2018 9:21 AM
Updated: Nov 20, 2018 9:32 AM

A version of this article first appeared in the Reliable Sources newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

White House backs down

This CNN.com story was rewritten several times on Monday. The first headline was "CNN asks for emergency hearing after Trump threatens to revoke Jim Acosta's credentials again." But then the headline became "White House backs down from legal fight, restores Acosta's press pass."

Yes, things are back to normal now, to the extent anything is normal in the Trump White House. The lawsuit is over... So here's what happened...

Monday's developments

-- Sarah Sanders and Bill Shine sent a letter to Acosta around 3 p.m. and said his hard pass had been "restored." They called this a "final determination."

-- "As a result," CNN said, "our lawsuit is no longer necessary." A couple hours later the network's lawyers filed papers to drop the lawsuit.

-- This resolution avoided a long and costly legal battle, and also avoided establishing any new case law...

-- David Gergen on "AC360:" "I think this has been a significant victory for CNN and for the country..."

-- Sanders and Shine notified Acosta and the rest of the press corps of new "rules" governing presidential pressers...

What are these "rules?"

The letter from Sanders and Shine asserted that reporters may only ask "a single question" at a press conference. Follow-ups will only be permitted "at the discretion of the President or other White House officials." And reporters must "physically surrender" the mic when directed. Violations of "any" of these rules "may result in suspension or revocation." Sounds serious! But is it?

Reporters have not agreed to the "rules"

To be clear: The press corps has not agreed to any new set of "rules." The correspondents' association said it had "no role" in crafting what the White House sent out.

This is a key quote from the association's statement: "For as long as there have been White House press conferences, White House reporters have asked follow-up questions. We fully expect this tradition will continue."

Indeed. But the obvious concern is that the "rules" could have a chilling effect on the press. Could discourage reporters from challenging Trump to actually answer their questions.

Or... Is all of this irrelevant? Maybe the White House is just trying to save face after an embarrassing loss to CNN. Maybe no one will remember this skirmish in a few weeks.

I was full of questions. So I asked three of the smartest people I know. Three people who have been dealing with the president and the press for years. And they gave me three different answers. Are these rules "real?" Will they be enforced?

The first person said no: "Ain't ever going to happen." This person told me not to fall for it. Trump lost in court, it's over.

The second person said yes: "Only a matter of time." They predicted that Trump would try to expel another reporter, citing the "rules" as a pretext. It all depends on his mood swings.

And the third smart person? "I don't know." They said no one knows. They lamented the fact that Trump's aides are trying to impose order on pressers when 1) Trump is the most disorderly person at pressers and 2) the events hardly ever take place, anyway...

The "rules" make Hannity feel powerful

I could hear it in his voice Monday night. Shadow press secretary Sean Hannity celebrated the "rules" and read all four bullet points aloud. This dust-up "may have ultimately made it easier to kick out people," Hannity said, excitedly. Reporters will have to abide "if they want to stay in the White House." He also played a montage of Acosta's so-called "lowlights." You see, Acosta being back at work means Acosta is back to being a hate object on "Hannity." And on Lou Dobbs' show too... Dobbs and "Diamond & Silk" heralded the "rules" on Monday night...

I wonder how Fox's White House reporters feel about this anti-journalism bluster from Hannity and Dobbs...

What insiders are saying

-- The Washington Post's Erik Wemple worried about the chilling effect: "Will reporters run afoul of these new rules? Will they ask two questions when they're allotted only one? Such technicalities may be beside the point: Reporters will be THINKING about those rules and the hassles that come along with violating them."

-- I'm thinking the same thing Matt Pearce of the L.A. Times tweeted: "This looks like they're creating rules that are very easy to break and are likely to go unenforced until the government decides they want to make an example of somebody..."

-- The Atlantic's Scott Nover spoke with several First Amendment advocates who are concerned about the "rule" talk...

-- The Post's Glenn Kessler tweeted: "It would require WH reporters to cooperate, but every time the president fails to answer a question, or dodges it, the next reporter should note that he did not answer the question and restate it. Only way to beat the WH at its silly game."

My four takeaways

1. Trump almost never holds full-fledged press conferences. So these "rules" almost never apply anyway. Will he start holding frequent pressers?

2. Most of the reporters at the Nov. 7 press conference asked followups. Some of them asked several followups. And Trump reveled in all of it. (Which takes me back to #1!)

3. Trump and co. want to provoke fights with the media, but they don't want to lose in court again. Will they really risk another loss by banning another reporter?

4. Something much, much bigger is going on. It's Trump's assault on truth. Trying to blacklist Acosta is just one small part of that. Trump calls real news "fake," he calls fake news "real," he insists on being the only reliable source for his fans. This is happening every day. This is the real overarching challenge of the Trump years...

Read more of Monday's Reliable Sources newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

The Trump effect on the WHCA Dinner

With Trump likely to skip the White House Correspondents' Dinner for a third straight year, the association is shaking things up. Comedian: Out. Author: In. Ron Chernow will be the featured speaker.

Why? Because the meaning of "nerd prom" has changed amid constant attacks on the media and increasing political polarization. When the president isn't there, jokes about the president sound different. I understand the decision. But there was a lot of criticism on Monday... Including from this year's performer Michelle Wolf. Here's my full story...

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