After all the insults, acrimonious exchanges, accusations of grandstanding, attacks by Fox News personalities, and even occasional death threats from Donald Trump-loving trolls, Jim Acosta is just flesh and blood.
“Not everybody is comfortable taking this guy on,” CNN’s chief White House correspondent told The Daily Beast on Thursday—“this guy” meaning the president of the United States. “It’s uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable.”
During a week in which, as usual, the cable news combatant and Trump White House officials past and present tangled like scorpions in a bottle, Acosta conceded: “It can be stressful. But I don’t want it interpreted as ‘Jim is in a fetal position on the verge of a nervous breakdown.’”
The 46-year-old Acosta is, by most appearances, the journalist most likely to receive this White House’s “Most Hated” prize—a designation he claims to wear as “a badge of honor.”
Acosta’s gladiatorial relationship with this White House dates back at least to the notorious Trump Tower press conference of Jan. 11, 2017, when the then-president elect refused recognize him for a question after Spicer, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Trump himself laced into CNN for reporting on the existence of a damaging dossier on which Trump had just been briefed by the FBI.
“Not you—your organization is terrible!” Trump insisted as Acosta kept shouting for recognition. “Don’t be rude,” Trump ordered. “I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news!”
“Mr. President-elect, that’s not appropriate!” Acosta yelled back.
After the white nationalist and neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville last August, Acosta scolded Trump when he notoriously suggested—once again, during a Trump Tower press conference—that there were “very fine people on both sides” during the lethal protests.
“No, sir, there are no fine people in the Nazis,” Acosta fact-checked the president.
With his confrontational style, Acosta sees himself as honoring the tradition of the legendarily loud-mouthed ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, the scourge of the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan White Houses.
Donaldson, a virtuoso in the performance art of television news, frequently teased headline-making answers from his shouted questions at the president.
The 84-year-old Donaldson, now retired, returns the favor. “I think he’s as good as it gets,” he told The Daily Beast about Acosta. “And when I say that, I’m not damning with faint praise. He’s good.”
Much like the man he covers, Acosta seems to have an uncommon tolerance, maybe even an appetite, for conflict in the workplace. His latest clashes involve the former and current White House press secretaries, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
On Tuesday night’s installment of Fox News’ Hannity—whose host, like Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters, has repeatedly skewered Acosta’s alleged anti-Trump bias, with Sean Hannity most recently referring to him as “that idiot over at ‘fake news’”—Spicer claimed: “Let’s be honest. Jim Acosta is a carnival barker in the press room that is both clueless and classless.”
“My question about Sean is whether he’s trying to be relevant and come back into the conversation by ripping into journalists he doesn’t like,” Acosta said about his former daily antagonist. “I had a decent relationship with him before he came to the White House.”
After Monday’s press briefing, in which Sanders didn’t call on him, Acosta tweeted that she hadn’t taken a question from CNN for three briefings running, and punctuated his complaint with the hashtag “#courage.”
Noting that two wounded Iraq war veterans had been her guests on the podium, Sanders fired back: “Courage isn’t taking ‘a question from CNN,’ Jim. Courage is combat veterans Sgt. Peck and Staff Sgt. Dwyer—the two heroes at the briefing.”
She needled Acosta with the hashtag “#itsnotaboutyou”—echoing a familiar critique, not only from Trump staffers but also from colleagues and rivals in the Washington media, that Acosta is all too happy to preen for the camera—a critique that also attached itself to Donaldson.
“People who stick their head above the crowd get hit by rotten fruit,” Donaldson said, quoting an old adage. “Jim sticks his head above the crowd. But if you look at what he’s doing, the questions he’s asking, the questions he’s pushing back on, his refusal to accept a bunch of hooey, yes, in a way that is grandstanding. But thank goodness he’s doing it.”
If Acosta enjoys the skirmishing, his work life can still be unnerving from time to time when angry amateurs leap into the fray.
“I receive more threats than I could count; it’s almost every week,” said Acosta, a soon-to-be-divorced father of two—mentioning one social media denizen who reacted to a recent Instagram photo of the CNN correspondent on a ski vacation by wishing that he’d race into a tree and kill himself; and a second troll who hoped he’d get cancer.
“I don’t think we should go too deeply into it,” Acosta added. “The company is aware, and they’ve urged me to take precautions.”
He said, however, that most of the feedback he gets from members of the public—and even in private messages from Republican operatives—is encouraging.
“There are a lot of people who feel deep down that what the president is doing, and what the White House is doing, is deeply wrong in terms of attacking the press,” Acosta asserted, noting the vicious terms—“enemy of the people,” “dishonest,” “lowest form of life,” “scum”—that Trump has thrown into his battle with the news media.
Acosta—a Cuban immigrant’s son who grew up in the Washington, D. C., suburbs and snagged jobs at a variety of local radio and television outlets before joining CBS News and ultimately CNN—likened covering the Trump White House to his days as a breaking news reporter “running to tornadoes and hurricanes.”
As with the unpredictability of foul weather, Acosta added, “This is a White House staff that is sort of at the mercy of this president”—leading to an overwhelming impression of chaos and seat-of-the-pants policymaking, as with Thursday night’s whiplash-inducing announcement of face-to-face talks between Trump and brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
“At any given moment,” Acosta said, “this is a president who can completely change the news cycle. Some of that is intentional—he knows what he’s doing when he wants to change the narrative”—from Stormy Daniels to tariffs to Korea, for instance—but Acosta said Trump’s scattershot conduct also breeds chaos and confusion.
“My sense is that in the the same way Americans got tired of watching The Apprentice on NBC, they’re eventually going to get weary of this reality TV-style president—which is essentially what we have right now.”
By now, Acosta said, very little that emerges from this White House surprises him. But the abrupt resignation of White House communications director Hope Hicks, whom Acosta got to know while covering the 2016 campaign, “totally shocked me,” he said.
Acosta also admitted that, like the rest of the media-political establishment, he never expected Trump to win. “I thought the Access Hollywood tape was a fatal blow,” he said.
Acosta said the way he approaches his beat has been unaffected by the legal wrangling between the Trump administration and Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, over the Justice Department’s opposition to Time Warner’s proposed merger with AT&T.
It’s a stance that has prompted a lawsuit and fueled speculation that the real Trumpian agenda is to get back at CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, a former friend (Zucker greenlighted The Apprentice at NBC) about whom the president bitterly and frequently complains for allegedly unfair coverage.
“No matter what this president wants to do or thinks he can do,” Acosta said—citing Trump’s musings during the presidential campaign about curtailing First Amendment freedoms and ‘open[ing] up the libel laws’—he cannot stop a free press. It isn’t going to happen. It’s just patently un-American. I think there would be tremendous pushback from Capitol Hill to California, and there would be a hue and cry in this country.”
In the meantime, Acosta said he plans to continue to be aggressive, even if it means antagonizing the president and his underlings.
“There are days when you can’t be the shrinking violet,” he said. “I’m going to do my damn job.”