The White House restricted the press access of a CNN White House correspondent who has aggressively challenged the administration during press conferences.
In a statement Wednesday evening, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said CNN reporter Jim Acosta would no longer be permitted a hard pass, the press credential that allows reporters to enter the White House without an escort. Sanders accused Acosta of “placing his hands” on a White House aide who attempted to take away the microphone Acosta was using to ask President Trump a question during Wednesday’s briefing.
“This conduct is absolutely unacceptable,” Sanders said. “It is also completely disrespectful to the reporter’s colleagues not to allow them an opportunity to ask a question.”
CNN immediately responded, saying Acosta's credentials were revoked for asking Trump tough questions, and pointing out that Acosta had not placed his hands on the White House employee.
"In an explanation, Sarah Huckabee Sanders lied. She provided fraudulent accusations and cited an incident that never happened," the network said in a statement. "This unprecedented decision is a threat to our democracy and the country deserves better. Jim Acosta has our full support."
During the press briefing on Wednesday, Trump berated Acosta after he asked why the president “demonized” the migrants—many of them seeking asylum—who were fleeing violence in Guatemala and Honduras.
“CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them,” Trump said, pointing at Acosta. “You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN. You’re a very rude person.”
In a statement following Trump’s comments after the press conference, the network criticized the president, saying his “attacks on the press have gone too far.”
“They are not only dangerous, they are disturbingly un-American,” the statement said. “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.”
Some other White House reporters came to Acosta's defense.
The White House Correspondents' Association, the organization which represents journalists who cover the White House, acknowledged that Acosta had a testy relationship with the administration, but urged the White House to "immediately reverse this weak and misguided action."
"The White House Correspondents' Association strongly objects to the Trump administration's decision to use US Secret Service security credentials as a tool to punish a reporter with whom it has a difficult relationship," WHCA president Olivier Knox said in a statement. "Revoking access to the White House complex is a reaction out of line to the purported offense and is unacceptable."
Throughout his tenure covering the Trump White House, Acosta has developed a reputation for asking administration officials pointed questions. He’s faced death threats and is often booed at Trump rallies. He’s also become a favorite rhetorical punching bag for many critics, including Sanders herself.
Ari Fleischer, a press secretary under former President George W. Bush, said he could not defend Acosta's questions because the CNN reporter "advocates for policies he believes in" and was "more of an opinion writer than a neutral journalist."
"Losing a hard pass doesn’t mean he can’t cover the White House," Fleischer said. "It just means it will take him more time to get cleared in every day. He can still get a day pass, and hopefully use it to ask questions, not advocate for policies he believes in."
Other former White House press secretaries disagreed.
Mike McCurry, a press secretary in former President Bill Clinton's White House, said there was "simply no justification" for banning Acosta, and that he wished someone would organize a field trip for White House staff to the Newseum to "read the words of the First Amendment there etched in granite."
"There are some reporters I would have liked to ban from the White House but your job is to swallow hard and take their questions, too," he said in an email. "Of the many lines Donald Trump and his supporting cast have crossed, this one is just the most awful to me personally."
The White House's decision to revoke Acosta's credentials recalled the Trump campaign's standoffish posture toward reporters during the 2016 campaign. Journalists from The Guardian, Politico, the Des Moines Register, BuzzFeed News, and The New York Times among others were barred from Trump events.
While he admonished the Obama administration for its treatment of Fox News journalists, Trump himself has often praised Republicans who have gotten into physical confrontations with reporters.
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbed a former Breitbart reporter as she tried to ask Trump a question following one of his speeches. And last month, the president praised Rep. Greg Gianforte for body-slamming a reporter for The Guardian.
“Any guy who can do a body-slam,” Trump said. “He’s my kind of guy.”