CNN Sues White House Over Jim Acosta Press Pass Suspension

Donald Trump gets into an exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta - Getty - H 2018
Al Drago - Pool/Getty

"If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers elected officials," CNN said of the decision to suspend Acosta's "hard pass."

In the most dramatic action yet in the ongoing feud between the media and the White House, CNN on Tuesday filed suit to reverse the Trump administration's decision last Wednesday to suspend chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta's "hard pass," which grants access to the building. The news was broken on CNN's airwaves.

"CNN filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in D.C. District Court," the network said in a statement. "It demands the return of the White House credentials of CNN's chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. The wrongful revocation of these credentials violates CNN and Acosta's First Amendment rights of freedom of the press, and their Fifth Amendment rights to due process."

The statement continued: "We have asked this court for an immediate restraining order requiring the pass to be returned to Jim, and will seek permanent relief as part of this process. While the suit is specific to CNN and Acosta, this could have happened to anyone. If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers elected officials."

The lawsuit was filed against President Donald Trump, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former Fox News executive Bill Shine (who runs communications), chief of staff General John Kelly, the director of the Secret Service (which took Acosta's pass) and an unidentified Secret Service agent.

Sanders announced the suspension in a statement last Wednesday night, alleging that Acosta "[placed] his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern" during a press conference after the midterm elections. Acosta called the White House's statement "a lie," and his fellow journalists — and his network — came to his defense, arguing that he did nothing wrong and was simply attempting to keep his microphone and ask the president a second question.

The White House Correspondents' Association issued a statement Tuesday supporting CNN's suit. "Revoking access to the White House complex amounted to disproportionate reaction to the events of last Wednesday," the group said in part. "We continue to urge the administration to reverse course and fully reinstate CNN's correspondent. 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 responded to the lawsuit in a statement, blasting it as "just more grandstanding from CNN" and adding, "We will vigorously defend against this lawsuit."

"CNN, who has nearly 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," Sanders said in the statement. "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. This was not the first time this reporter has inappropriately refused to yield to other reporters."

Continued Sanders: "The White House cannot run an orderly and fair press conference when a reporter acts this way, which is neither appropriate nor professional. 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.”

Of the White House's decision to suspend Acosta's access, the plaintiffs argued in the suit: "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."

In the lawsuit, the network said that Acosta "is widely reputed as a diligent and thorough reporter for one of the nation’s most respected and widely watched networks."

The argument was also made that the White House is Acosta's workplace, and that his hard pass is mandatory: "Without this credential, a daily White House correspondent like Acosta effectively cannot do his or her job. ... Without a hard pass, a reporter may well miss the newsworthy events, particularly including the many notable events that occur with little notice. A hard pass is effectively required to be a White House correspondent for a national news organization such as CNN."

Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., who is representing CNN and Acosta (along with attorney Theodore Olson), appeared on the network and said it "was clear" that the White House suspended Acosta because of his reporting. "We can't have the White House or government officials arbitrarily tossing people out of the White House or other government facilities just because they don't like what they're saying or reporting," he said.

The suit alleges that both the White House and Secret Service did not, and have not, followed due process in denying Acosta's access: "Neither the White House nor the Secret Service has provided Acosta any formal notice of the reasons for, opportunity to be heard regarding, or opportunity to challenge, the decision to revoke his hard pass."

According to the suit, CNN president Jeff Zucker emailed Kelly last Thursday and demanded that Acosta's access be reinstated.

"This is not a step we have taken lightly. But the White House action is unprecedented," Zucker wrote Tuesday in an internal memo to staff. "The First Amendment grants the right of all journalists to hold those in power accountable and ask tough questions.  It's what Jim, and all of his colleagues who cover the White House and the administration, do with integrity and professionalism. As we have said before, we will always stand up for our rights. That is why we have filed suit."

On Thursday, The Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said that CNN should sue the White House, a prospect that legendary First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams endorsed in a Sunday interview on the network. "I think it's a really strong lawsuit," he said. "I can understand CNN being reluctant to sue because the president keeps saying CNN is the enemy of me, and CNN might have reluctance to have a lawsuit titled 'CNN vs. Donald Trump.' That said, yes, I think they should sue." 

After veteran White House reporter Sam Donaldson said Sunday that CNN is suing the White House, the network would not confirm that such a suit had been filed. “No decisions have been made," a spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter on Sunday afternoon. "We reached out to the White House and have gotten no response.” (Donaldson, who has been supportive of Acosta's aggressive style of questioning, which mirrors his own, said he was asked to submit an affidavit as part of the suit.)

Boutrous said the White House was given notice of the suit on Tuesday morning.

Last Wednesday night, Sanders tweeted out a video of Acosta's interaction with the intern that appeared to have been doctored, taken from the conspiratorial InfoWars website, to make the clash look more physically contentious than it was.