In an hour and 26 combative minutes on Wednesday, President Donald Trump declared CNN reporter Jim Acosta an “enemy of the people,” said he didn’t much care for NBC reporter Peter Alexander, either, told American Urban Radio Networks correspondent April Ryan to “sit down,” and accused Yamiche Alcindor of “PBS NewsHour” of asking a question that was “racist.” Three times.
In case there were any questions over whether Trump would soften his tone after the Democratic takeover of the House on Tuesday, in the news conference he delivered his most strident and personal attacks on the press — a high bar for a president who has declared war on the media from Day One. Trump has often used his fights with journalists to shift the agenda from less favorable subjects — like midterm election losses — and Wednesday’s event was a clear indicator that he was ready to turn the volume on his attack up past 11 to 12 and even higher in the second half of his term.
Later Wednesday night, the Trump administration hit those new heights when it suspended Acosta‘s press pass for clearly fabricated reasons. It was a move without precedent in recent memory and one seemingly designed to distract from the president‘s decision earlier in the day to oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The action against Acosta stemmed from the news conference, the longest of Trump’s presidency, when the CNN reporter, a frequent Trump sparring partner who has become well known for his back-and-forths with the president, asked a question about Trump’s rhetoric on the migrant caravan currently in Mexico.
Trump replied” “I think you should let me run the country. You run CNN. And if you did it well, your ratings would be much higher.”
As Acosta tried to follow up, Trump repeatedly said, “That’s enough,” as a press assistant tried to take the microphone from Acosta’s hand. When Acosta persisted with a question about the Russia investigation, Trump said, “That’s enough, put down the mic,” and stepped away from the podium until Acosta relinquished it.
“I will tell you that CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them,” the president said. “You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.”
Referring to his press secretary, he added: “You are a very rude person, and the way you treat Sarah Huckabee is horrible and the way you treat other people is horrible. You shouldn’t treat people that way.”
When NBC reporter Peter Alexander, who had the next question, tried to defend Acosta’s character, Trump said: “Well I’m not a big fan of yours, either. You aren’t the best.”
At this point, Acosta rose again, without the microphone and continued speaking to the president. Trump replied, “When you report the fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people.”
In a series of tweets Wednesday night, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Acosta of “placing his hands on“ the press assistant who had tried to take the microphone from him, and cited Acosta‘s behavior as the reason for revoking his pass. Her statement wasn’t based in truth, however: Video replays clearly show that Acosta did not touch the assistant in any inappropriate manner.
But at the news conference, the president was just getting warmed up with Acosta. When April Ryan tried to break in later with a question about voter suppression, Trump pointed at her and said: “Sit down, please. Sit down. I didn’t call you.”
The exchange continued a bit longer — “I’m not responding to you,” Trump said — before the president lamented: “Such a hostile media. It’s so sad.”
The most startling exchange came toward the end of the news conference when Alcindor began a question, saying, “On the campaign trail you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists.”
Trump interrupted her, saying: “I don’t know why you’d say that. It’s such a racist question.”
After allowing Alcindor to finish, Trump said, “Why do I have my highest poll numbers ever with African Americans?”
He continued: “That’s such a racist question. Honestly, I mean, I know you have it written down and you’re going to tell me. Let me tell you, that’s a racist question. I love — you know what the word is — I love our country. I do. You have nationalists. You have globalists. I also love the world. And I don’t mind helping the world, but we have to straighten out our country first. We have a lot of problems. But to say that, what you said is so insulting to me. It’s a very terrible thing that you said.”
Following the news conference, CNN, which has grown more aggressive under network president Jeff Zucker in challenging Trump, sent a statement to reporters.
“This President’s ongoing attacks on the press have gone too far,” it read. “They are not only dangerous, they are disturbingly un-American. While President Trump has made it clear he does not respect a free press, he has a sworn obligation to protect it. A free press is vital to democracy, and we stand behind Jim Acosta and his fellow journalists everywhere.”
Reporters on Twitter rallied, particularly to Alcindor’s support.
“@Yamiche asked a fair and important question about whether Trump’s embrace of the ‘nationalist’ label is an embrace of ‘white nationalism,’” Washington Post White House reporter Philip Rucker said in one typical tweet.
Notably, when Trump went after Alcindor, she did not take the bait, pressing on with her question. “I followed up the president calling my question ‘racist’ with a policy question about his proposed middle class tax cut because that’s what journalists do,” she tweeted. “We press on. We focus on the privilege of asking questions for a living. We do the work.”
The rest of the media was not so focused.
One veteran White House reporter told POLITICO that he was mostly struck with how effective the president’s strategy had been in distracting from the actual news of the day.
“What is the coverage now? What is the coverage right now?” the reporter asked, pointing to a post-news-conference CNN chyron reading, “TRUMP NEWS CONFERENCE TURNS CONTENTIOUS WITH REPORTERS.”
Instead of talking about Trump’s setbacks in the midterms or what investigations may be coming down the pike, the reporter noted that the CNN panel was discussing the food fight Trump had started himself.
“The more interesting thing here,” the reporter added, “is that he has changed the conversation.”