Trump doesn’t get to decide who asks the questions

Published 6:00 am Friday, November 23, 2018


Inside the First Amendment

Sorry Mr. President, but you don’t get to just pick and choose who — on behalf of the public — gets access to the White House to ask you questions on our behalf.

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Your predecessors in the White House — Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the like — settled that matter with the Bill of Rights. Some time ago.

Whoever told you that you should pull the security pass for CNN’s Jim Acosta — or failed to tell you that you shouldn’t — was wrong.

Journalists, on behalf of the public, are the constitutional watchdogs on what you do and say. There is no requirement that you, or anyone else for that matter, likes or approves of what and how they do it.

Give him back his pass and move on. Most likely you eventually will lose in the lawsuit CNN has brought to reverse your move — a judge last Friday temporarily restored his pass for now. But clearly you’ve already lost in the court of public opinion. I’d add you will also find this a negative entry in whatever history is written about your time in the Oval Office.

Sure, there are parts of your inner circle who rather enjoy slapping back at Acosta — and no doubt even some secretly enjoyed having you as a front man for that work.

We also know you’ve been trolling Acosta, CNN and other journalists by name, as well as the news media in general, so you likely will get some cheers at the next rally when you bring up your “confrontation.”

But even your ally-in-media, Fox News, is supporting CNN’s legal complaint: “Fox News supports CNN in its legal effort to regain its White House reporter’s press credential … Secret Service passes for working White House journalists should never be weaponized. While we don’t condone the growing antagonistic tone by both the president and the press at recent media avails, we do support a free press, access and open exchanges for the American people,” Fox News President Jay Wallace said in a statement.

I’ll admit that many find Acosta’s manner grating and perhaps even insulting. He’s not the first White House reporter or journalist of any kind to get that review. But the free press provision of the First Amendment does not include a popularity meter or requirement to be polite.

You and your aides have floated several rationales for pulling Acosta’s access pass, from a discredited claim of physical assault of an intern who reached to grab his microphone to the latest ploy — his conduct is detrimental to other journalists in the White House press pool. All of those excuses are not worth more than a chuckle.

A 1977 federal appellate court held that anytime the White House pulls access from a reporter, there’s a potential collision with the First and Fifth amendments — the latter involving due process of law.

According to that ruling, you had to give Acosta written notice of why you were pulling the pass, give him time to respond and perhaps most importantly, prove he’s a physical threat to you. Not just an irritant or gadfly or however you might view him, but a bona fide safety concern. Good luck on that one — video shows he was polite to the intern trying to grab the mic.

As to this latest claim you’re actually trying to defend other reporters in the press briefing — no joy there either. That’s the turf held by the White House Correspondents’ Association — a self-governing press group intended specifically to keep such matters out of presidential hands.

Finally, there’s the larger principle involved. You’re hardly the first president who doesn’t like a certain reporter or news organization or the entire White House press corps. But from the beginning of the nation, journalists have sometimes asked presidents annoying, intrusive, insulting, invasive questions and presidents have either answered or ignored.

In those centuries of experience, the American people have gotten what the founders intended in providing for a free press — a chance to get the information needed for self-governance and an opportunity to take the measure of the person behind that presidential podium — which now is you.

Just give Acosta back his access. Don’t waste time and public money in court. Let him ask his questions. You decide how and when to respond.

As Washington, Jefferson, Madison and their colleagues decided, we citizens will take it from there.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.