Donald Trump and several of his top aides were accused of violating the US constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press in a district court in Washington DC on Wednesday, over his row with CNN’s Jim Acosta.
In a case whose title sums up the hostile relations between the Trump administration and the media – Cable News Network, Inc V Donald J Trump – rival lawyers for CNN and the US government tussled over two hours of argument about the nature of political reporting and free speech.
The hearing was held before Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, who indicated he would give his ruling on Thursday at 3pm ET.
At stake in the case was who gets to control media coverage of Trump’s presidency. Would it be the president, who government lawyers argued has wide powers of discretion over who he allows into the White House, or an untrammeled media as representatives of the people?
The dramatic courtroom battle was prompted by the contentious decision of the White House last week to revoke media access to CNN’s chief White house correspondent, Jim Acosta, following a confrontation at a press conference between the reporter and Trump. In response, CNN is suing the president and members of his senior team, including the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and head of communications Bill Shine, in an attempt to get Acosta’s credentials immediately reinstated and to permanently protect journalists against such treatment in future.
In the course of the hearing, government lawyers tried to minimize the significance of Trump’s attack on Acosta. James Burnham, a justice department attorney presenting the White House case, told the court: “As for CNN, I don’t think there’s any harm at all.”
He said that Acosta had had his credentials removed not for reasons relating to his coverage or views, but because of his objectionable and disruptive behavior at the press conference. “Grandstanding is not a viewpoint,” Burnham said.
Theodore Boutrous, addressing the court for CNN, said the revocation of the press pass was all about discrimination by the White House against the cable network’s and its reporter’s content. As for behavior, Trump was “the most aggressive, dare I say rude, person in the room,” Boutrous said.
Acosta had his “hard pass”, which grants open access to White House grounds, suspended following a feisty press conference held the day after the midterm elections. In the course of a question-and-answer session with reporters, Acosta tried to ask Trump about his remark that a caravan of Central American asylum seekers was “invading” the US.
Trump evaded the question, and instead called Acosta a “rude, terrible person”.
Soon after the press conference, Acosta’s pass was suspended until further notice. The CNN journalist was also prevented from covering elements of Trump’s visit to Paris last weekend.