May 9, 2019 – In what appears to be an unprecedented move, the White House revoked the press passes of a significant chunk of the Washington press corps because they didn’t meet a new standard, according to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. Under the new rules, rolled out earlier this year, in order to qualify for the highest level of access—known as a “hard pass”—journalists had to be present in the White House for at least 90 days out of a 180-day period. According to Milbank, virtually the entire press corps failed to meet this new test, including all six of the Post’s White House correspondents. Media outlets then had to apply for exceptions to cover their senior journalists, or settle for six-month passes, which don’t allow as much access.
The Post applied for and was granted exceptions for its White House correspondents, Milbank says, but he was not given one. “I strongly suspect it’s because I’m a Trump critic,” he wrote on Wednesday. “The move is perfectly in line with Trump’s banning of certain news organizations, including The Post, from his campaign events and his threats to revoke White House credentials of journalists he doesn’t like.” Milbank noted that, since dozens of senior correspondents didn’t meet the new standards either, “they all serve at the pleasure of Press Secretary Sarah Sanders” and “therefore, in theory, can have their credentials revoked any time they annoy Trump or his aides.” (The White House press secretary told the Post the move was a result of security concerns, not a desire to crack down on specific journalists.)
Some seemed concerned that the new rules are an attempt to exert more direct control over the White House press corps, after an incident involving CNN reporter Jim Acosta in November. Acosta’s press pass was revoked following a contentious press conference in which the CNN reporter repeatedly asked the president questions about immigration policy that Trump refused to answer, and then refused to hand over the microphone when an aide tried to take it from him. Later that day, Acosta tried to access the White House in the usual way and was told his “hard pass” had been revoked because of his behavior. Sanders later released a statement saying the CNN reporter’s pass had been withdrawn “until further notice.”
CNN went to court to seek an injunction ordering the White House to return Acosta’s pass, and won. The media company and a number of other organizations that filed briefs in the case argued that the First Amendment protected the media’s right to cover the White House, and that this right couldn’t be abridged without due process. Judge Timothy Kelly agreed with the latter part of that argument, and said the Trump administration had failed to show why Acosta’s press pass was being revoked, or, in fact, that any process had been followed at all. “Whatever process occurred within the government is still so shrouded in mystery that the government could not tell me at oral argument who made the initial decision to revoke Mr. Acosta’s press pass,” he wrote.
Now, with its new standards for performance and most of the press corps holding passes that have only been issued as “exceptions,” the White House has a structure in place that could allow it to remove whoever it wishes to remove. That wouldn’t necessarily override First Amendment protection for press access (which Kelly didn’t rule on), but in the short term it gives the Trump administration new levers with which to control the press corps. Some argue that access to the White House is already almost meaningless, since press briefings are few and far between (there hasn’t been an on-camera briefing for 58 days, a new record) and what briefings there are often involve the White House press secretary and/or the president shutting down journalist questions and in many cases outright lying about various details of the administration’s behavior or plans.
Here’s more on the White House’s tangled relationship with the press:
- Un-American: “This is what dictators do,” Patrick Leahy, the senior Democratic senator from Vermont, said in a tweet posted to his official Twitter account, quoting from the Dana Milbank piece in The Washington Post. Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, posted a similar sentiment on Twitter, saying: “Curtailing a free press and undermining the public’s access to government is a hallmark of authoritarianism & has no place in America. This purge of reporters is un-American and needs to be reversed ASAP. ”
- Not normal: Even before the furor over the revoking of Jim Acosta’s press pass, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen was arguing that the media should “suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency” because of the way it treated journalists and the press. New outlets and journalists should refuse to do background or off-the-record briefings, Rosen said, and stop repeating the president’s falsehoods. Rosen also argued as early as 2017 that media outlets should stop sending their senior journalists to White House briefings.
- Does it matter? In September, Pete Vernon wrote for CJR about the inexorable decline of the White House press briefing and asked whether or not it matters anymore. Olivier Knox, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the briefing “has both a symbolic and a substantive importance to the White House press corps,” because it shows that “the most powerful political institution in American life is not above being questioned.” But others argued it was just an exercise in political theater.
- No dinner: Trump announced last month that he wouldn’t be attending the White House Correspondent Dinner, an annual fundraiser in which journalists dine with politicians and celebrities, and then ordered that no White House or administration officials would be allowed to attend the dinner either. Trump said the dinner was “so boring and negative” that he would be attending a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin instead. Last year, CJR looked at the dinner and found that less than half the money raised went to scholarships.