White House backs down from legal fight, restores Jim Acosta’s press pass

Posted at 7:03 AM, Nov 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-19 16:22:15-05

The White House on Monday said that CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass has been “restored,” bowing to days of pressure and a federal lawsuit against the administration.

CNN signaled that it would drop the ongoing litigation over Acosta’s access to the White House.

“Today the White House fully restored Jim Acosta’s press pass. As a result, our lawsuit is no longer necessary,” the network said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to cover the White House.”

Monday afternoon’s announcement, what the White House called a “final determination,” was an abrupt shift from the administration’s earlier positions.

Nearly two weeks ago the Trump administration took the unprecedented step of suspending Acosta’s access to the White House after he had a contentious exchange with President Trump at a press conference.

When a federal judge sided with CNN and issued a temporary restraining order last Friday, thereby forcing the White House to restore his press pass for 14 days, the administration continued to threaten his access.

In a private letter to Acosta that same evening, two of the defendants in CNN’s suit — press secretary Sarah Sanders and deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine — cited Acosta’s conduct at the November 7 press conference, where he asked multiple follow-up questions and didn’t give up the microphone right away. “You failed to abide” by “basic, widely understood practices,” the letter to Acosta claimed.

Many journalists have challenged the administration’s actions, pointing out that aggressive questioning is a tradition that dates back decades. But Trump appeared eager to advance an argument about White House press corps “decorum,” no matter how hypocritical.

The letter from Shine and Sanders said their “preliminary decision” after the press conference was to suspend the press pass. This indicated that the White House could take further action against Acosta as soon as the judge’s temporary restraining order expired.

It was also a sign that the White House was trying to establish a paper trail. The judge in the case, Timothy J. Kelly, had criticized the government for not following due process before banning Acosta on November 7. His ruling in Acosta and CNN’s favor was on Fifth Amendment due process grounds.

So Friday night’s letter offered Acosta a chance to contest the decision and said a “final determination” would be made by Monday at 3 p.m.

Lawyers for Acosta and CNN did respond, forcefully, in a letter and in a court filing.

They had signaled a willingness to settle after prevailing in court on Friday. But in a new motion on Monday morning, they said the defendants “did not respond to this offer to cooperate.” Instead, the letter from Shine and Sanders was an “attempt to provide retroactive due process,” the filing alleged.

So CNN and Acosta asked the judge to set a schedule of deadlines for motions and hearings that would give the network the chance to win a preliminary injunction, a longer form of court-ordered protection to Acosta’s press pass.

They were seeking a hearing “for the week of November 26, 2018, or as soon thereafter as possible,” according to the court filing.

The judge had yet to file on that request when the Monday at 3 p.m. deadline came.

A new Monday afternoon letter from Sanders and Shine included no expiration date, though it does contain the general threat to take action against any reporter who flouts new “rules.”

“Having received a formal reply from your counsel to our letter of November 16, we have made a final determination in this process: your hard pass is restored,” the White House said in a new letter to Acosta. “Should you refuse to follow these rules in the future, we will take action in accordance with the rules set forth above. The President is aware of this decision and concurs.”

The letter detailed several new rules for reporter conduct at presidential press conferences, including “a single question” from each journalist. Follow-ups will only be permitted “at the discretion of the President or other White House officials.”

The case was assigned to Judge Kelly when CNN filed suit last Tuesday. Kelly was appointed to the bench by Trump last year, and confirmed with bipartisan support in the Senate. He heard oral arguments on Wednesday and granted CNN’s request for a temporary restraining order on Friday.

Trump seemed to shrug off the loss that day, telling Fox’s Chris Wallace in an interview that “it’s not a big deal.”

He said the White House would “create rules and regulations for conduct” so that the administration can revoke press passes in the future.

“If he misbehaves,” Trump said, apparently referring to Acosta, “we’ll throw him out or we’ll stop the news conference.”