The White House suspended the press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta yesterday in a display of fascist behavior notable even for this administration, after a post-election press conference during which Donald Trump was alternately defensive, churlish, menacing, and, as always, mendacious. I believe it may have been a setup. Whether or not it was, it’s time for the White House press corps to boycott Trump.
In fact, it’s far past time.
Trump opened the press conference with his usual litany of counterfactual statements, this time about the midterm elections. He claimed the Republican Party “defied history to expand our Senate Majority while significantly beating expectations in the House for the midtown and midterm year.” These assertions are, to be generous, fanciful: Democrats won control of the House by gaining 30 seats and counting; most Senate races were exceedingly close and at least one is going to a recount (Florida). Democrats won seven governorships with two, Florida and Georgia, pending possible recounts. Not a single one of the most contested elections can be analyzed with integrity without accounting for voter suppression and efforts to undermine access to the polls.
The full transcript of the press conference can be can be found here since the White House has been altering transcripts and actually altered the videos they are sharing to serve their own purposes. The full video of the press conference can be seen here. Altering a video or other information to support a government claim is the work of a fascist.
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Trump also threatened “a war-like posture” toward the Democrats should they investigate his finances and possible corruption, claimed his tax returns were still under audit (apparently the longest audit in history), and then proceeded to attack members of his own party who lost elections because, in his words, they did not want to receive his “embrace.” (Would you?)
It went south from there.
Trump called on Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, early on. And Acosta did exactly what journalists are here to do: hold elected officials and the powerful accountable in service of democracy. Acosta challenged Trump on his portrayals during the midterms of asylum seekers as invaders and his claims that journalists are the “enemy of the people.”
Trump first became sarcastic toward Acosta and then belligerent and angry. He loudly and repeatedly told Acosta, “that’s enough.” He called him rude (which was … interesting given that Trump was being exceedingly rude) and told him he was an “enemy of the people.” The president then moved away from the podium and slightly toward Acosta in a manner that appeared intended to intimidate and reminiscent of similar stalker-like behavior toward former Hillary Clinton in one of the 2016 presidential debates.
As this was happening, a young woman came seemingly out of nowhere and began trying to wrest the microphone away from Acosta, who very gently said, “Excuse me, ma’am.”
The video clearly shows that the young woman, later identified as a White House intern, tried to forcefully grab the microphone, which Acosta merely moved out of the way.
The White House claimed Acosta had “placed his hands on her,” which I suppose is to suggest “manhandling” of the young woman by Acosta.
According to the Guardian, “After Acosta was stripped of his accreditation, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, accused him of touching a member of staff, saying: ‘We will … never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.’”
Except Acosta did no such thing.
For its part, CNN was unequivocal about what happened, stating: “Press Secretary Sarah Sanders lied. She provided fraudulent accusations and cited an incident that never happened.”
I watched live and then many times on many different video clips (not that this was really necessarily because it was immediately obvious in seeing it the first time Acosta never raised his hands to her). The woman walked right up to Acosta, put herself in front of him, and then tried aggressively several times to grab the microphone. I have never before seen such invasive behavior from anyone at a White House press conference, much less an intern, over control of the mic. She seemed to be looking to Trump for approval. At one point, he seemed to wave at her to stop and move away.
In this White House, however, the word “truth” has no real meaning. Instead, the White House used the event as an excuse first to excoriate the press for doing its job, and then to do what it has wanted to do for a long time: Punish Acosta and CNN. And that’s why I think it may well have been a setup.
There were other points of aggressive, menacing, and rude behavior. Trump, for example, went after American Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan for what seems like the thousandth time. After berating Acosta, he called on NBC’s Peter Alexander, who then defended Acosta. Trump replied: “Well, I’m not a big fan of yours either. So, you know.”
Many members of the press corps in the room responded by laughing.
But this is not a laughing matter, and this is not new. It is just getting worse and will continue to get worse. We know that Trump is a dictatorial lout with no desire to serve in a democracy. We know that just days before the midterms, his national security advisor, John Bolton, praised Brazil’s new fascist President Jair Bolsonaro, as a “like-minded partner.” Bolsonaro, who is unapologetically racist, homophobic, and misogynistic, was described by Politico as a “bombastic, far-right nationalist.” That sounds like the man in the Oval office. We know that Trump regularly confers directly with Putin on the phone and that Putin’s regime murders journalists. We know that for weeks the administration tried to protect Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed Bin Salman from taking blame for the gruesome death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We know that white nationalists serve as key staff in this administration. And we know that Trump has been inciting violence since the beginning of his campaign.
These things are not hard to tie together. Taken together, they signal grave danger. Trump is putting the safety of individual reporters at risk, he is undermining the integrity of journalism in a free society, and he is by extension endangering our democracy.
The White House press corps needs to take this deeply seriously. Jim Acosta now has a target on his back and many others do as well, figuratively if not literally. Trump thrives on spreading lies and hatred. He thrives on simultaneously casting himself as a victim and a dictator. His efforts to gaslight the country are like a harmful out-of-control algal bloom suffocating the truth. Journalists have for too long been helping him achieve his ends by using a playbook created in more “normal” administrations.
Now, it’s time for the press corps to boycott the White House and start telling the real stories of what is happening in the country—rather than continuously giving a serial abuser a national platform. At the very least, not a single legitimate reporter should give either Trump or Sanders a microphone unless and until Acosta’s credentials are restored, and even then I am not sure they should go back. Trump is not only endangering the truth, he’s endangering the country and the lives of individual journalists. Stop giving him the attention and the oxygen he so craves.