CNN can count an early stage victory in what could be a drawn-out legal fight with the Trump White House over which reporters are allowed access to the presidency.
Judge Timothy Kelly, appointed last year by President Trump to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled in favor of CNN in its request for a temporary restraining order after the White House revoked access of correspondent Jim Acosta without warning. The denial of access was based on flimsy reasoning that he touched a White House intern who tried to take a microphone from him during a question. Trump had called on him during a briefing last week.
With the ruling, initially expected on Wednesday but twice delayed, Acosta’s access to the White House grounds was restored, but only for the time being. Further hearings on the motions — which include arguments by CNN that the president does not have the power to arbitrarily decide what reporters have access to White House briefings and arguments by the White House that he does — are expected. A final ruling in the case is poised to set precedent for press access to the government and presidential administrations.
In a joint statement, CNN and Acosta said they’re “gratified” with Judge Kelly’s interim ruling “and we look forward to a full resolution in the coming days.” The news industry, from Fox to BuzzFeed, has rallied in support of CNN’s effort to stymie what Trump has said could become a trend of barring reporters he doesn’t like from briefings and access. CNN added its “sincere thanks to all who have supported not just CNN, but a free, strong and independent American press.”
Trump has yet to say anything about CNN, normally a favorite target for his claims of “fake news,” since Acosta had his Secret Service access to the White House revoked last week. The White House has also yet to make a formal statement on Judge Kelly’s ruling, but immediately after the decision to revoke Acosta’s access, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote on Twitter: “We stand by our decision to revoke this individual’s hard press pass. We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video.” Sanders is named as a defendant in CNN’s suit, along with Trump and Bill Shine, the relatively new communications and a former longtime executive at Fox News.
The video she mentioned, viewed now nearly 13 million times, shows Acosta’s wrist come into contact with the arm of a White House intern trying to take a mic out of his hand during a question. While the allegation that Acosta, one of the more aggressive reporters covering Trump, “placed his hands on” the intern was the initial argument the White House used to bar him, the White House seems to be walking back from it.
In a response to CNN’s complaint, accusing the White House and its key staff of violating the First and Fifth amendments of the Constitution, Joseph Hunt, assistant attorney general wrote that the President and his staff have “absolute” and “broad” discretion over which reporters receive access to the White House.
“No journalist has a First Amendment right to enter the White House and the President need not survive First Amendment scrutiny whenever he exercises his discretion to deny an individual journalist one of the many hundreds of passes granting on-demand access to the White House complex,” Joseph Hunt, assistant attorney general, wrote on behalf of the White House.
But detractors of the move by the White House see Acosta being banned as an unacceptable move against the press.
Ben Wizner, a director at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a statement that Judge Kelly’s decision “reaffirms that no one, not even the president, is above the law.”
“The White House surely hoped that expelling a reporter would deter forceful questioning, but the court’s ruling will have the opposite effect,” Wizner wrote. “The freedom of the press is a bedrock principle and our democracy is strengthened when journalists challenge our leaders rather than defer to them.”
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