CNN sued President Trump and several top advisers Tuesday in an attempt to force the White House to restore the press credentials of reporter Jim Acosta, an unprecedented escalation of the long-running feud between the president and the media.
The network filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking a restraining order against the White House’s decision last week that barred Mr. Acosta from the White House grounds indefinitely.
In taking the step, CNN said it also wants the court to order the White House not to revoke Mr. Acosta’s credentials in the future.
“The wrongful revocation of these credentials violates CNN and Acosta’s First Amendment rights of freedom of the press, and their Fifth Amendment rights to due process,” the complaint said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the network, which has nearly 50 other journalists credentialed to cover the White House, was guilty of “more grandstanding.”
“We will vigorously defend against this lawsuit,” she said.
The complaint names as defendants Mr. Trump, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Mrs. Sanders, deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Bill Shine, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy and the unnamed Secret Service officer who confiscated Mr. Acosta’s hard pass.
The case has been assigned to Judge Timothy J. Kelly, a Trump appointee.
The filing highlighted a record of Mr. Trump’s multiple statements disparaging CNN in public, including calling the network “fake news” and “the enemy of the American People.”
And although the network’s complaint deals specifically with the punishment of Mr. Acosta, the lawsuit also essentially seeks to litigate broader aspects of Mr. Trump’s war with the media.
“Since the start of his campaign and continuing to the present day, President Trump has heavily criticized any journalist or news organization he believes might report something he considers negative,” the lawsuit stated. “As the president explained to Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes: ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you’.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association said it “strongly supports CNN’s goal of seeing their correspondent regain a U.S. Secret Service security credential that the White House should not have taken away in the first place.”
“Revoking access to the White House complex amounted to disproportionate reaction to the events of last Wednesday,” the association said. “We continue to urge the administration to reverse course and fully reinstate CNN’s correspondent.”
The group, which represents journalists covering the White House, said the president “should not be in the business of arbitrarily picking the men and women who cover him.”
The confrontation that gave rise to the lawsuit occurred when Mr. Trump held a news conference in the East Room of the White House to review the results of the mid-term elections. The president called on Mr. Acosta, who challenged Mr. Trump’s characterization of a caravan of migrants from Central America as an “invasion” of the U.S.
“As you know, Mr. President, the caravan was not an invasion,” Mr. Acosta said. “It’s a group of migrants moving up from Central America towards the border with the U.S.”
The president replied, “I consider it an invasion. You and I have a difference of opinion.”
After some more jousting, Mr. Acosta again asserted, “That’s not an invasion.”
Mr. Trump retorted, “I think you should let me run the country, you run CNN.”
When the president called on another reporter, Mr. Acosta refused to give up to an intern the cordless microphone provided by the White House. Mr. Trump called the reporter a “rude” and “terrible” person.
Mrs. Sanders later accused Mr. Acosta of putting his hands on the intern and revoked his credentials; video of the incident showed only that the journalist’s arm touched the intern’s arm as she tried to reach across him to grab the microphone.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Sanders stressed that it was “inappropriate” for Mr. Acosta to refuse to give up the mic. Legal experts say CNN’s case is solid, as it outlines the Trump administration’s actions as an attack of the First Amendment and the journalists’ right to due process.
“There’s a clear First Amendment issue here, that if we’re going to allow the president to pick and choose — essentially, arbitrarily — who is allowed to cover anything really involving the White House, then there’s an issue with the types of narratives that readers will be presented with,” said Nicole Ligon, supervising attorney for Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic.
Catherine Ross, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the press pass — called a hard pass — serves as a sort of speech permit. She said the permit cannot be denied on the basis of content or viewpoint. They cite a ruling by the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a 1977 case, Sherrill v. Knight, that requires the Secret Service to create a “narrow and specific” procedure for denial of a press pass. But that case does not specifically address revoking a reporter’s credentials.
Hard pass holders are warned that it can be revoked if they violate certain security measures, though the Secret Service doesn’t specify what would constitute a violation.
Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a legal brief in support of CNN’s lawsuit, arguing that the White House’s action “tramples” on the First Amendment and could have a chilling effect on other journalists. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporter’s Committee, said the president was punishing Mr. Acosta for asking sharp questions.
“The truth is that Acosta’s credentials were stripped in part because of President Trump’s perception that he is a rude, terrible person,” he said. “It was retaliation, plain and simple.”