WASHINGTON — CNN has filed suit against the Trump administration to demand that the White House reinstate Jim Acosta’s credentials, which were revoked last week following a contentious post-midterm press conference.
The lawsuit sets up a potential legal showdown between the administration and CNN, which Trump has long disparaged, as well as the news media itself.
“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,” CNN said in a statement. “We have asked this court for an immediate restraining order requiring the pass be returned to Jim, and will seek permanent relief as part of this process. While the suit is specific to CNN and Acosta, this could have happened to anyone. If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers our elected officials.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the lawsuit saying, “This is just more grandstanding from CNN, and we will vigorously defend against this lawsuit.”
CNN hired high-profile attorneys Ted Boutrous and Ted Olson of Gibson Dunn to represent them in the lawsuit. As issues of press access were raised since Trump took office, Boutrous has pointed to a 1977 D.C. Circuit decision in Sherrill v. Knight, in which the court ruled that when it came to bonafide journalists covering the White House, “access not be denied arbitrarily or for less than compelling reasons,” including the content of their coverage.
The case involved Robert Sherrill, a journalist for the Nation who was denied credentials during the Johnson and later the Nixon administration. As it turned out, the Secret Service had security concerns based on his past arrest record, but the court found that the government should have given Sherrill specific written notice and an opportunity to rebut.
“The White House punished Mr. Acosta and CNN for the contents of their reporting,” Boutrous said. “The law is clear that this violates the First Amendment and Due Process Clause of the Constitution. The arbitrary revocation of Mr Acosta’s press credentials is causing irreparable injury each and every day because it is stopping him from reporting on news from the White House. That is why we are seeking emergency relief and asking that his credentials be restored immediately.”
The White House Correspondents Association, which represents the press corps, signaled their support for CNN’s action.
Olivier Knox, the president of the association, said that “revoking access to the White House complex amounted to disproportionate reaction to the events of last Wednesday. We continue to urge the administration to reverse course and fully reinstate CNN’s correspondent. The President of the United States should not be in the business of arbitrarily picking the men and women who cover him.” Another press organization, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, filed a brief in support of CNN’s lawsuit.
In a note sent to CNN employees, CNN CEO Jeff Zucker said that “this is not a step we have taken lightly. But the White House action is unprecedented.”
On Wednesday evening, hours after the press conference, the administration pulled Acosta’s hard pass, which allowed him to enter and exit the White House grounds without an escort and without applying for a new credential each time.
Sanders claimed that Acosta was “placing his hands” on a White House intern who sought to take a microphone away from him as he persisted in asking a followup question to President Donald Trump.
Acosta called such a claim a “lie,” and video of the incident shows that one of his hands may have inadvertently touched her arm as she attempted to get the microphone and he held on to it to continue to speak to Trump.
In the lawsuit, CNN also contends that a video that the White House released of the incident was “apparently doctored” to make it look as if Acosta was overly aggressive. It cited reports that the video came from the conspiracy cite InfoWars. The “unaltered video captured by C-SPAN shows what really occurred: Acosta was only attempting to hold onto the microphone as the staffer tried to grab it from him,” the lawsuit stated.
Sanders, however, argued that “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,” she added. “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.”
The complaint names as defendants Trump, Sanders, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine and the United States Secret Service, including its director, Randolph Alles, and a “John Doe,” presumably the agent who asked Acosta to return his credentials. CNN also claims a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
CNN is seeking a temporary restraining order to restore Acosta’s credentials and access. CNN also wants a declaration that the revocation of his credentials was unconstitutional, and is seeking costs and attorneys’ fees.
The lawsuit said that Zucker wrote to Kelly on Nov. 8, requesting that Acosta’s credentials be “reinstated immediately,” and he noted that before this revocation, “no complaints were raised with CNN and there was no attempt to reach anyone at CNN before taking this unlawful action.” Zucker also wrote that “this is now the third instance where CNN journalists were targeted for exclusion by this administration . . .” as part of a “pattern of targeted harassment.”
Acosta was in Paris last weekend to cover Trump’s trip there, but he was told that he would not be allowed to access Trump’s events, according to the lawsuit. The French government did issue him credentials.
The lawsuit challenged the Trump administration’s stated reason for revoking Acosta’s credentials. The White House “initially claimed that they revoked Acosta’s press pass because he ‘plac[ed] his hands’ on an intern,” the lawsuit stated. “That contention is not accurate. The President himself has stated that the Acosta’s conduct was not ‘overly horrible’ and that Acosta’s credentials were actually suspended because he failed to ‘treat the White House with respect.'”
Trump made the remarks on Friday, as he spoke to reporters before leaving on his trip to Paris. He was asked when Acosta’s press pass would be reinstated and said, “As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t made that decision. But it could be others also.”