Trump’s Cold War With the White House Press Corps

Yet another reporter faces punishment, this time for cracking a joke about a former White House adviser.

U.S. President Donald Trump at the “Presidential Social Media Summit” on July 11 in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump at the “Presidential Social Media Summit” on July 11 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press have settled into cold war tactics. Last year, Trump tried to expel CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House for having the temerity to question the president’s description of asylum-seekers as invaders. Now, Trump’s press secretary is trying to suspend another reporter. The reason this time? He responded to taunts from Sebastian Gorka, a former White House staffer best known for his opposition to investigating threats of violence by white supremacists.

Trump’s latest effort to single out a disfavored reporter—this time it’s Brian Karem, Playboy’s White House correspondent—for punishment is a patent violation of due process. But the Trump administration appears to care little whether courts will uphold their actions; rather, it wants to maintain an atmosphere of intimidation and uncertainty among the journalists charged with covering the president.

During a post-election news conference in November 2018, Acosta questioned Trump about his claims the nation was facing an “invasion” of desperate asylum seekers during the run up to the Republicans’ catastrophic midterm loss. Trump responded by calling Acosta an “enemy of the people,” and asserting he purveyed “fake news.” Hours later, then–White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suspended Acosta’s permanent (or “hard”) White House pass, relying on a doctored video to falsely claim that Acosta had deliberately placed his hands on a staffer as she followed Trump’s order to seize a microphone from the reporter.

Trump then suffered an embarrassing loss in court. As a judge appointed by Trump recognized, the Constitution’s due process guarantee bars a president from yanking a White House pass without procedural due process, including notice and an opportunity to be heard. After the court ordered Acosta temporarily re-admitted to the White House, Trump dropped his effort to bar the reporter.

Even as the White House re-admitted Acosta, it began to formalize Trump’s hostility to the press corps. Sanders issued a set of “rules governing future press conferences” that threatened to expel any journalist who asked a government official an unwanted follow-up question.

During the ensuing months, Trump’s cold war against the press continued. The White House press office virtually ceased holding formal press briefings. In May of this year, the White House threatened to yank the hard passes of reporters who did not meet the “qualification” of having been present in the White House for 90 of the preceding 180 days. Most journalists were granted “exceptions” to this arbitrary rule, or were provided less favorable six-month passes. But the White House wholly revoked the pass of one Washington Post reporter, Dana Milbank, in apparent retaliation for his sarcastically critical columns about Trump, quietly making an example out of yet another member of the press.

Last week, the White House continued its intimidation efforts by explicitly penalizing a reporter for talking back to one of Trump’s favored conspiracy theorists. On July 11, 2019, the White House held a “Social Media Summit,” purportedly intended to highlight the censorship of conservative speakers on platforms including Facebook and Twitter. The attendees included a who’s who of right-wing extremists, including former Trump staffer and conservative radio host Sebastian Gorka.

As recounted in a letter to the White House, and recorded in videos, during the July 11 event, Karem attempted to shout questions to Trump and was mocked by conservative social media activists. He then sarcastically remarked that Gorka and his fellow conspiracists appeared “eager for demonic possession.” Gorka responded by shouting, “You’re not a journalist! You’re a punk.” Gorka’s acolytes urged him on, yelling: “Gorka, Gorka,” with some even encouraging Gorka to hit Karem. Gorka also mocked other members of the press corps, including Acosta, calling them “asshats.” A Fox News contributor told Karem that Gorka would “kick your punk ass.” Trump later congratulated Gorka on Twitter for what he claimed was a victory over Karem and other “fake” journalists, declaring: “@sebgorka Wins Big. No Contest!

During the ensuing 22 days, Karem continued to have unencumbered access to the White House, and indeed repeatedly posed questions to Trump. On Aug. 2, however, newly installed White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham sent Karem a letter stating that the White House had made a “preliminary decision” to suspend his White House pass for 30 days, purportedly due to a threat of violence toward Gorka during the July 11 event; she provided Karem with all of one business day to respond. The White House reportedly tried to keep the suspension letter “private,” apparently expecting that Karem and his employer would suffer the temporary loss of White House access in relative silence, rather than incurring the expense and risk of litigation like CNN. It was wrong.

Playboy engaged Ted Boutros, the attorney who successfully represented Acosta. As Boutros’ demonstrates in his letter to the White House, Karem’s proposed suspension is even more patently violative of the Constitution than Trump’s effort to pull Acosta’s pass. The president has never come close to announcing rules or standards governing the interaction of reporters with visitors to the White House, making the suspension a mockery of due process standards. Furthermore, the White House’s claim that Karem threatened Gorka is not only false, but farcically so, given that it was Gorka and his fellow conspiracists who were openly threatening to commit violence on Karem and other journalists. Rather, the suspension is plainly a punishment for Karem’s reporting. Accordingly, the White House would not stand a chance before any judge fairly applying governing constitutional standards.

According to Karem, Trump’s “goal is to keep the press docile. Don’t rock the boat or you will lose access. Don’t make waves. Don’t ask hard questions. Be quiet and obedient.”Trump probably believes he stands to win simply by making this unconstitutional threat. By forcing yet another press organization to choose between suffering in silence and paying hefty attorneys’ fees, the White House is likely betting that some members of the press will choose to preserve their access by avoiding making too many waves. If journalists hesitate to speak up, or their employers hesitate to back them up, a climate of self-censorship can begin to take hold. Under these circumstances, Playboy’s choice not to keep the suspension of Karem “private,” and to back up its reporter, is particularly important. Yet, even if the White House backs off from its effort to bar Karem, we can be certain that Trump’s cold war against the press corps will continue. As Karem puts it, “I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last.”