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The White House is changing its tune on why it yanked Jim Acosta’s press pass

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 11/14/2018 Aaron Blake
A White House intern reaches for and tries to take away the microphone held by CNN correspondent Jim Acosta as he questions U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (Picture 3 in a sequence of 15) © Thomson Reuters A White House intern reaches for and tries to take away the microphone held by CNN correspondent Jim Acosta as he questions U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 7, 2018. Picture taken November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (Picture 3 in a sequence of 15)

CNN announced Tuesday that it will sue the White House over reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass being revoked. And importantly, the White House now seems to be changing its tune about exactly why it sanctioned Acosta.

In a statement Tuesday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suggested that the decision was about Acosta refusing to yield the microphone while questioning the president:

We have been advised that CNN has filed a complaint challenging the suspension of Jim Acosta’s hard pass. This is just more grandstanding from CNN, and we will vigorously defend against this lawsuit.

CNN, who has nearly 50 additional hard pass holders, and Mr. Acosta is no more or less special than any other media outlet or reporter with respect to the First Amendment. After Mr. Acosta asked the President two questions — each of which the President answered — he physically refused to surrender a White House microphone to an intern, so that other reporters might ask their questions. This was not the first time this reporter has inappropriately refused to yield to other reporters.

The White House cannot run an orderly and fair press conference when a reporter acts this way, which is neither appropriate nor professional. The First Amendment is not served when a single reporter, of more than 150 present, attempts to monopolize the floor. If there is no check on this type of behavior it impedes the ability of the President, the White House staff, and members of the media to conduct business.”

But that’s different from the initial justifications offered by the White House for revoking Acosta’s press pass. Less than a week ago, it was primarily about him supposedly placing his hands on and getting too rough with an intern.

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Sanders said at the time that the White House would “never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman.” Only after that was mentioned did Sanders add as an addendum: “It is also completely disrespectful to the reporter’s colleagues not to allow them an opportunity to ask a question.”

The day after the altercation, White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp doubled down on the idea that Acosta was being punished for an alleged physical altercation.

“Look, I think it’s important to show that Jim Acosta did place his hands on this White House staffer,” Schlapp said on Fox News. “She’s young, she was shaken up, she was intimidated by what Jim Acosta did. What we are seeing is bad behavior that cannot be tolerated and, in fact, there’s been several reporters who have shared their viewpoints about — privately about Jim Acosta where he’s being so disrespectful that other reporters don’t have a chance to ask a question. This behavior is not going to be tolerated.”

Again, Schlapp seemed to suggest that the alleged journalistic sin was secondary and that it was really about what Acosta did to the intern.

By this time, of course, it had been established that not only did the video of the incident not show Acosta placing his hands on the intern but that Sanders herself shared a doctored video of it that was sped up to make Acosta’s movement look more aggressive than it was.

Faced with that evidence, Sanders on Thursday again defended the decision in the context of the altercation, rather than Acosta simply hogging the microphone.

“The question is: Did the reporter make contact or not?” Sanders said. “The video is clear — he did. We stand by our statement.”

By Friday, President Trump himself was still litigating the video. “Nobody manipulated it. Give me a break,” he said. “See, that’s just dishonest reporting. All that is is a close-up. See, that’s just — that is just dishonest reporting. I watched that. I heard that last night. They made it close up. They showed it close up, and he was not nice to that young woman.”

The new White House statement does say that Acosta “physically refused to surrender a White House microphone to an intern.” But that’s not accusing him of violence or placing his hands on the intern. That could simply be him refusing to let go. The statement is also completely different from the initial ones in its emphasis on Acosta’s alleged journalistic sins.

So why no mention of Acosta’s allegedly violent behavior in the latest statement? As The Post’s Deanna Paul writes, that would actually be a compelling reason for his access to be revoked:

There are situations where a journalist’s access to a news conference can be effectively stripped, though they are rare, [First Amendment lawyer Floyd] Abrams said. For example, if a journalist is an ongoing threat to people present in the area, the government has a legitimate argument to take away his or her access.

So conceding this wasn’t about Acosta laying his hands on an intern would seem to throw in the towel on a potent argument.

Possibly that’s because the White House recognizes that, while the argument that Acosta was being violent might wash with the president’s base, basically, no court would ever agree. The alleged assault simply isn’t there, and the fact that the White House needed to use sped-up video — what can only be called propaganda — to bolster its point shows how shaky the foundations of the decision and its initial justifications were.

That the White House isn’t sticking with that version when faced with legal action shows how dodgy it was to begin with.

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