Between Election Day, the shooting in Los Angeles, and the fires in California leaving at least 44 dead and thousands homeless, it has been nearly impossible to keep up with the news this week. Right in the middle of this mayhem, perhaps somewhat (rightfully) overshadowed, has been the quick and brutal attacks from the White House against the freedom of the press, and therefore the First Amendment. Though not a matter of human life and death, the possible death of the free press seems to be possible in the near future.
In this three part series, I will discuss Trump’s exchange with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, the White House’s revoking of Acosta’s press credentials, White House Press Secretary Sara Huckabee Sanders’ publishing of a doctored video, and the power and necessity of the press to reclaim their rights, as well as how all four of these matters relate to the First Amendment.
On Wednesday, November 7, President Trump held a press conference to discuss the results of the midterm election – something that could be considered fairly routine. However, this press conference was anything but. Standout moments included vaguely threatening the Democratic party with a “war-like posture” should they choose to investigate him, and telling PBS NewsHour correspondent Yamiche Alcindor that her question regarding him calling himself a nationalist was “racist” and refusing to answer it. But perhaps the most bizarre exchange occurred between Trump and his long considered adversary CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
During the press conference, Trump and Acosta had a tense if not hostile back and forth. Acosta attempted to ask about Trump characterizing the migrant caravan as an invasion, despite it being hundreds of miles from the border. His response was to say that he called it an invasion because that was his opinion and further told Acosta to let him run the country while he runs CNN. Acosta attempted to ask a follow up question about the Russia investigation as an intern tried to take the mic (which I will delve into further later on) to which Trump responded that he had no concerns because it was a hoax. He walked away from his mic before coming back to attack Acosta personally, saying:
“I’ll tell you what: CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.”
The mic then moved to NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander, but Trump continued to attack Acosta. Without a mic, Acosta stood up and spoke to Trump – his words difficult to make out but including the phrases “pipe bomb” and “enemy of the people,” to which Trump responded, “When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people.”
It does not get much clearer than that. Trump considers news outlets who challenge him and his policies to be “enemies of the people,” and does not condemn, but rather incites, violence towards them.
When these pipe bombs were discovered, several of them being addressed to CNN, Trump did not offer words of sympathy or assurance, but rather insulted CNN and blamed them for connecting them to him personally:
Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, “it’s just not Presidential!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 26, 2018
And when the individual responsible for sending the bombs was arrested, he could not be bothered to even tweet out his own statement:
I agree wholeheartedly! https://t.co/ndzu0A30vU
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2018
This entire press conference was a demonstration in his viewpoint of the press as the enemy. While he might claim that it is only “the fake news,” the entire press corps is treated this way, making it seem as though it is the free press itself which Trump views as the enemy – his enemy.
And maybe they are. As Supreme Court Justice said in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” So during an administration where the President does not seem to have the governed’s best interests in mind, perhaps that does make them Trump’s enemy. But by calling them the enemy of the people, he incites his base and creates distrust in the only source of power we have as citizens: information.
This press conference showed clear incitement against the freedom of the press and sets the scene for the true violation of the First Amendment which took place later Wednesday night.