The day after Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, opening the door to increased oversight of the Trump administration, what does the president do? He fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions and holds a bizarre press conference in which he arbitrarily lashes out at journalists, resulting in a reporter’s White House press pass being canceled.
While it’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s ongoing and escalating feuds with some in the media as mere distractions from the more consequential ousting of Sessions, both actions are driven by a unifying theme: to escape accountability. Firing Sessions, and using an obscure law to install a lackey in his place, was a clear effort to circumvent the Senate confirmation process and threaten the Mueller probe, while barring a reporter was an effort to intimidate journalists.
At the Wednesday press conference, Trump grew visibly hostile with reporters. After CNN’s Jim Acosta had asked him about why he had mischaracterized the migrant caravan traveling to the US border as an invasion, the president deflected by insulting him. A brief row ensued and a female intern moved to remove Acosta’s mike. Later, the White House canceled Acosta’s press credentials, falsely claiming he had placed his hands on the intern. The incident constitutes an extraordinary attack on the press as a whole.
The issue here is not whether the White House is entitled to suspend Acosta’s media pass. It’s how the White House handled the Acosta case.
To justify the clearly disproportionate move, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted a video of Acosta that was manipulated to look like he had smacked the intern’s hand, when clearly he did not. This blatant dishonesty is emblematic of a president who believes no threshold of truth is too sacred to cross, no opportunity to assert his power too crass to pass up.
The president is behaving like an authoritarian ruler, one who stops at nothing to elude accountability. Trump could have sidestepped or simply refused to answer pointed questions. Instead, he moved to cut Acosta’s access simply because he doesn’t like the way the reporter does his job. This is not just a stunning departure from White House norms; it’s a grave warning that the American media should heed.
There’s always been a strong impulse among journalists to avoid drawing attention to themselves. But the stakes are getting higher. The more journalists fail to take seriously attacks on other fellow journalists, or to dismiss those attacks simplistically as distractions, the more power the president has to weaken the constitutional charge of a free press: to hold those in power accountable.
Let’s not forget that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against journalists has consequences. The press needs to act in unison in rejecting Trump’s targeting of individual journalists. A White House press corps walkout would send a powerful message of solidarity.