FULL COURT PRESS

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo

CNN’s Jim Acosta shares his White House stories at the Dreamland this August.

In President Trump’s war on the press, no reporter has been more on the frontlines than CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. After a heated press conference exchange in November 2018, where a White House aide attempted to seize the microphone away from him while he was asking the president a question, Acosta had his press credentials revoked. The unprecedented move by the White House spurred condemnation from the press pool and thrust Acosta into the center of the news cycle. The case ended up in federal court where a judge ruled that Acosta’s Fifth Amendment rights had been violated and that his press credentials must be reinstated. Since that legal victory, Acosta has been emblematic of the fight for protecting the free press. Earlier this summer, he released a book detailing his recent experiences covering the White House, titled The Enemy of the People, which he will be discussing with David Gregory this month at the Dreamland. As a preview to his visit, Acosta spoke to N Magazine from Japan while he was covering the G20 Summit.

N MAGAZINE: How has this administration changed your approach to covering the White House?

ACOSTA: This really started during the transition, when [the president] had that press conference in January 2017. CNN was reporting at the time that the U.S. intelligence community had gone to him and said, “Mr. President, there may be a problem. The Russians may have compromising information on you.” And at this press conference, he, the vice president and the incoming press secretary Sean Spicer were all referring to that report as “fake news.” He wouldn’t take a question from me at the press conference. He was saying, “Your organization is terrible. I’m not going to take your question for you.” And essentially, I thought at that point, my goodness, not only is he attacking our news organization, but he’s essentially telling the world that up is down and black is white and that a real story is fake. And so I thought I’d better butt in there and try to ask that question.

What I have found since then is that this is a president who doesn’t always want to take that question if he knows it’s going to be calling into question whether or not he’s leveling with the American people. Sometimes he doesn’t want to take that question when it’s about how he’s being dishonest. And so we have to not take no for an answer. We have to keep pushing to ask those hard questions. I think it really started there, and ever since, as you saw during the first two years of his presidency, he continued to escalate these assaults on the press, calling us the enemy of the people.

N MAGAZINE: Do you fear for your safety being labeled an “enemy of the people”?

ACOSTA: I’ve received a number of death threats. They come in on almost a weekly basis. Are all of these threats from people intending to do harm? Perhaps not, but we have to take them all seriously. And it’s not just me. It’s some of my colleagues at CNN, other journalists and anchors and reporters who cover this president. These threats come in more often than I think the public fully understands. And that’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book. I thought the public had a right to know about this. My hope is that there are folks on the president’s side who will perhaps take a hard look at this and turn down the rhetoric, turn down the temperature, because we can’t have a situation in this country where a journalist is injured or, God forbid, killed as a result of the president’s rhetoric and hostility toward the media. At that point, the United States ceases being the country you and I grew up with. Reporters should not need bodyguards to go to Trump rallies, you know? But that’s part of the reality that we deal with now.

N MAGAZINE: What security precautions do you have to take in covering the president?

ACOSTA: After the pipe bomb incident, it was discovered that the person who went on to plead guilty in that case, Cesar Sayoc, had made a number of death threats directed at me on Twitter. My security was ramped up toward the end of the midterm cycle. I was going to Trump rallies with four bodyguards. One or two might be sort of normal, but four is just at a level that I’ve never experienced in this country.

N MAGAZINE: You grabbed headlines last year after your press credentials were revoked by the White House. What was it like becoming the news story yourself?

ACOSTA: I was raised in this business believing that a reporter is not supposed to be the story and you’re not supposed to make yourself part of the story. But the president really dragged the press into the story because he wanted to essentially run against us when he had already defeated Hillary Clinton. He was looking for a different sparring partner. Even the term “the enemy of the people” that he and Steve Bannon borrowed from dictators of yesteryear was essentially used as a way to incite the news media. Now, the problem is that this rhetoric has gotten out of his control. He used to use this as a way to taunt us and troll us, but this hostility, this rhetoric has been absorbed by some—not all—Trump supporters, then directed back at us in ways that make us feel endangered. And I don’t think he fully understands what he’s unleashed.

N MAGAZINE: Do you think that this is the new normal?

ACOSTA: I do. I think this is the new normal. I think 2020 could very well be worse than what we saw in 2016. We can’t have a situation in this country where reporters feel threatened just covering a political rally. I’ve covered four different campaigns. This is my second administration. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Now, there are folks who will say, “Oh, well, yeah, we’ve seen the rhetoric get escalated here and there, and people have gotten death threats before.” That’s all true. I’m not denying that, but my sense of it is that this is at a level that we have never seen in a generation. And it’s gotten to a point where if it escalates further, my concern is that somebody is going to get hurt.

N MAGAZINE: Is it possible for you and your colleagues at CNN to report on the positive stories coming out of the White House when you feel so threatened?

ACOSTA: We’ve reported on [the positive stories], and I don’t think we get enough credit for it from some of the folks in his camp. We’ve reported on the economy, how it’s done well, how the stock market has done well. I was recently in Normandy covering the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Much was made of the fact that I said that president gave a good speech. He did give a good speech. Do people remember that? No, they don’t. They just remember the times that you got into a contentious exchange with him, and that’s OK. I understand that. That’s fine. But this whole notion that we never report anything positive about him, it doesn’t hold up. I think there are plenty of examples out there.

N MAGAZINE: Are you optimistic about the incoming press secretary?

ACOSTA: Well, when is this going to publish? [Today], I’m hopeful. I’m always hopeful. I’m always optimistic. Let me answer it this way. My sense of it is that what got Sean Spicer into trouble and what got Sarah Sanders into trouble is that they lost sight of who they were working for. I think they thought they were working for Donald Trump. And as the press secretary, you are working for the American people. You’re working for the United States government. You are perhaps the most important spokesperson for the United States government. Sarah Sanders was caught red-handed in the Mueller Report admitting that she knowingly passed on false information to reporters in the briefing room. That is not good for a press secretary’s legacy. And so my hope is that Stephanie Grisham will look at what’s happened over the last two years and recognize that she does work on behalf of the American people.

N MAGAZINE: Do you see yourself as a crusader for protecting the free press?

ACOSTA: I don’t want to get high on my own fumes. The only thing I can point to is the press pass case. The president’s own team of lawyers, the Justice Department lawyers paid for with your tax dollars, were making the argument that the president of the United States can essentially pick and choose who covers him at the White House. That if the president wanted to, he could go up to any news outlet or reporter and say, “I don’t like your coverage, get out of here.” Now, I think if they had been successful in that case, it would have put a real chilling effect on the press and the First Amendment. Across the country, governors and mayors could have done the same thing to news outlets. At that point, it would’ve been a real crushing blow for the First Amendment and for a free press in this country. So I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I think the judge recognized that there was a First Amendment case there. He ruled on Fifth Amendment grounds that I wasn’t given due process. He said that when the press is granted access to the White House grounds, we do have First Amendment rights when we’re there. So I think it was a good victory for the First Amendment, but it was also very revealing of their perspective on all of this.

N MAGAZINE: What are you optimistic about moving forward into the next election?

ACOSTA: There were Trump supporters who would come up to me toward the end of the midterm cycle and tell me that they felt badly about the way we were being treated. I think as some Trump supporters sat back and watched some of that hostility firsthand, they were uncomfortable with it. I tell the story about this one Trump supporter who came up to me and told me he wanted to apologize for giving me the middle finger at a different Trump rally. That to me was a sign of hope and optimism for our process. Maybe at the end of the day, we are going to figure out how to get through this period. But you know, before we get too optimistic, we have to recognize things as they are in the world right now. And we have a very unusual president who is realizing some short-term political gains by dividing the country up. And the question for the American people heading into 2020 is whether or not this rhetoric and this behavior are rewarded with a second term. It is going to be an important turning point for the country.

Jim Acosta will be in conversation with David Gregory at The Dreamland on Sunday, August 4th, at 5 P.M.

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