President Trump tried to put his best spin on the midterm results as he began his post-election press conference. He noted that the sizable Democratic gains in the House of Representatives were in line with historical averages, that many of the Senate candidates for whom he campaigned had won, that Democrats did not do as well in statehouses as they had hoped. He mocked Republican House candidates who had distanced themselves from him during the campaign only to lose anyway. In low and somber tones, he called on House Democrats to govern in a bipartisan manner and threatened to play hardball if Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Nadler moved aggressively to investigate his administration.
Then he opened it up for questions and all hell broke loose.
Actually, that’s not quite right. The first several questions were fairly routine ones. Things took a bizarre turn when the president called on CNN’s Jim Acosta. No stranger to this column, Acosta has become infamous for his showboating questions at White House press briefings. He is point man for his network’s aggressive coverage of Trump—coverage that often slips the surly bonds of objectivity into sensationalistic opposition. Republican presidents have faced journalistic nemeses before: Nixon had Dan Rather, Reagan had Sam Donaldson, and the Bushes had Helen Thomas. But Rather and Donaldson were poodles compared with Acosta. His behavior exemplifies the attitudes and conduct of a press corps that is so convinced of Donald Trump’s abnormality and villainy that it is willing to cast aside decorum, professionalism, and its own credibility.
One couldn’t help but be struck by the way Acosta began the exchange. “Thank you, Mr. President,” he said. “I wanted to challenge you on one of the statements that you made in the tail end of the campaign in the midterms.” At that point, Trump interjected: “Here we go.” And he was right to be sarcastic. Notice the self-serving and impertinent manner in which Acosta framed his question. He didn’t ask Trump to clarify his words. He didn’t say that many people had criticized Trump’s description of the “caravan” of asylum seekers from Central America as an “invasion.” He said he was going to “challenge” the president of the United States, as if press availabilities were the same as trial by combat.
When Trump stated flatly, “I consider it to be an invasion,” Acosta interrupted him once more. “As you know, Mr. President,” he said condescendingly, “the caravan was not an invasion.” Trump noted that he and Acosta have a difference of opinion. This was unacceptable to Acosta. He refused to let the president continue, saying that Trump “demonized immigrants” and “that’s not an invasion.” And he pressed on, refusing to sit down and hand over the microphone when his turn was over and Trump had called on NBC’s Peter Alexander.
To make matters worse, Alexander stepped on his own question about the Mueller probe to defend Acosta. “In Jim’s defense,” Alexander said, “I’ve traveled with him and watched him. He’s a diligent reporter who busts his butt like the rest of us.” To which Trump responded, “Well, I’m not a big fan of yours, either.”
That’s when the joust between CNN and the president turned into a melee. Alexander asked, “Why are you pitting Americans against one another, sir?” As though Donald Trump is the first president in history to attack his opposition and use wedge issues for political gain. The East Room of the White House was filled with reporters who, by shouting out questions, waving their hands wildly, and jostling for Trump’s attention, treated the august setting more like a rope line on the campaign trail than the onetime residence of John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Ronald Reagan. CNN contributor April Ryan kept shouting her question about “voter suppression” despite not being called on and despite Trump’s answering it off-handedly. “Very hostile—such a hostile media,” Trump remarked, whereupon Ryan yelled at him again.
By the time the press conference was over, President Trump had answered 68 questions from 35 reporters. Between his tweets, his rallies, his interviews, his remarks as he makes his way to Marine One, and his press conferences, Trump has to be one of the most “available” presidents in memory. We know his unvarnished opinion on practically every topic in the news, especially ones that involve him. Plus, there hasn’t been a dull day in Washington since he announced his campaign. You’d think reporters would be in hog heaven. Why do they hate him so? One reason is politics: The press exhibits liberal bias even in the most mainstream of Republican administrations, much less this populist-nationalist one.
The media are also used to controlling the narrative. For decades, the country has talked about what executives and editors in New York and D.C. want it to talk about. But this tradition is breaking down because of cable, digital, and social media, and it is incredibly frustrating for reporters when the president refuses to accept their own ideological priors. The last question of the postelection press conference, for example, came from Aixa Diaz of Hearst Television. She noted that suburban women had turned against the Republican Party: “How do you bridge that divide now—also with the influx of women coming into Congress?” Trump answered as he always does. He denied weakness, projected strength, and reiterated his message of the day. Diaz wouldn’t accept it. She interrupted the president six times in a vain attempt to get him to parrot the conventional wisdom. What did she expect? Humility?
The president’s over-the-top attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people” have solidified journalistic class-consciousness. An attack on one of them is now an assault on the Bill of Rights. This guild mentality excuses some ridiculous activity. What Acosta did was blatantly unprofessional. “We want journalists to ask questions and seek truth,” wrote Al Tompkins and Kelly McBridge of Poynter.org. “But Jim Acosta’s encounter Wednesday at a White House press conference was less about asking questions and more about making statements.”
However, when the White House revoked Acosta’s hard press pass, making it more difficult for him to cover the White House, the press rallied to his side. CNN said in a statement, “This unprecedented decision is a threat to our democracy.” The next day, Peter Alexander said, “If he had an issue with Jim Acosta, and we know that the two of them have tussled in the past, he could have called on somebody else.” Of course, if Trump hadn’t called on Acosta, the press would have zinged him for cowardice. “There is not a rudeness exception to the First Amendment,” said Peter Baker of the New York Times. Earlier presidents “took the questions and they weren’t such fragile flowers that they couldn’t stand up for themselves.” But Trump did stand up for himself. It’s why you’re criticizing him!
Jim Rutenberg of the Times asked, “Should the press boycott Trump?” He spent an afternoon calling political strategists for advice, as if the real campaign were between President Trump and the journalists who mock him all day on Twitter. Rutenberg’s piece was clarifying. It made one realize that there’s a better chance of bipartisanship between Trump and Nancy Pelosi than between Trump and Jim Acosta. It made one realize that, if this really were an election, the press would lose. And it would be a landslide.