Wednesday, November 7, 2018: A day that will live in infamy, when the president of the United States declared war on the American people. In one question, in a rare televised news conference from the White House East Room, President Donald Trump let the world know what’s in store for the United States for the next two years.
I asked him, should the Democrats begin investigating him, “Can you compartmentalize that and still continue to work with them for the benefit of the rest of the country? Or are you—"“No,” Trump said.
“Are all bets off?” I asked.
“No. If they do that, then it’s a warlike posture.”
He refused more questions from me and, as he called on Jim Acosta from CNN, I demurred. It isn’t about me. “Since it’s Jim...” I said, handing over the microphone to Jim.
Only two reporters have ever had their press passes pulled. Those were for security reasons.
After the dust settled from that exchange, the president fielded other questions for about an hour, accusing an African American reporter of asking a “racist question,” telling others (including myself) to sit down and flipping out at April Ryan when she tried to ask a question without raising her hand. And while the president told us how much he liked Oprah Winfrey, he also insulted her. That also came from a question I asked. With all the Oprah love the president professed, I had to pry.
“I was tempted to ask you why you like Oprah so much, but I think I'll go on to the question that—"
“Why do I like Oprah? What kind of a question is that?”
“I'm just asking. Just curious. But the real question—”
“He's a comedian here.”
He looked to his left as he said it and Sanders grinned. “The real question is...”
“I do like Oprah, by the way. I do,” Trump replied as he turned back to face me.
“She was a person I knew well. Came to my place in Palm Beach often. And I have a lot of respect for her. Unfortunately, she didn't do the trick.”Honestly, I could’ve gone my whole life without knowing Oprah didn’t do the trick for The Donald. Later in the news conference, he offered to quit fielding questions because he didn’t want to bore anyone.
“You’re anything but boring,” I replied.
I spoke with April Ryan, too. She wasn’t happy with her treatment and wanted a response to the question about Trump’s inherent racist stances. It is a question she’s been asking for months and has never had answered. So that’s the real answer. That night, as Acosta came back to the White House to do a live shot for Anderson Cooper’s show, he found out his press pass had been pulled. The White House said he had “laid hands” on the intern who tried to take the microphone out of Acosta’s hand. Everyone who was within 10 feet of Acosta, as I was, knows that was bull.
But the White House doubled down the next day. Sanders promoted a doctored video of Acosta that made it appear as if he had pushed back on the intern. For this, Sanders should resign, be fired and never allowed to hold a government job again. It is one thing to put the president’s best foot forward. It is quite another to manufacture propaganda and lie about a reporter's intent and actions.
Of course, many in Trump's base have bought it. Acosta, according to them, attacked an intern. But Friday on the South Lawn, the president dropped the act even as he defended the manufactured evidence. He threatened to pull other press passes if reporters weren’t more respectful. He proclaimed reverence for the White House and said it was a sacred place. Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw made it plain what he thought about that: “Pres trump calls white house 'a sacred place' deserving of better treatment by press. no, mr president, it is not a religious sanctuary. it is the people’s house, and its temporary occupants are not above examination or criticism. always has been and will be after you’re gone,” Brokaw tweeted.
Appearing on my podcast “Just Ask the Question,” Mike McCurry, former press secretary to Bill Clinton, said the president is in dangerous waters and should never pull press passes from legitimate reporters. “I’ve never seen it happen,” he told me. According to Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition project, only two reporters have ever had their press passes pulled. The first was a reporter who was involved in several thefts and the second was a guy who turned out to be a former male escort. Those were for security reasons. Acosta got his pulled for refusing to stop asking questions.
Still, there are those reporters who think Acosta was out of line and that April Ryan should’ve sat down and raised her hand. Since the president also fired up on three African American female reporters in three days—twice in the news conference and once on the South Lawn, when he called a CNN reporter’s question “stupid”—there is the ugly specter of the president of the United States being a racist. Of course, the White House says the president is an equal opportunity offender. And as far as that goes, that much is true. He called me a comedian. He’s told me to sit down. He’s told others to shut up. So, I’ll agree the president is a misanthrope. But that doesn’t exclude him from being a racist as well. They are not mutually exclusive.
There are those who think we are rude. So be it.
That’s one right government officials do not have: sanctioning what is or is not acceptable speech. McCurry said the White House shouldn’t even be involved in issuing credentials to the press “just for this reason.” Instead, he believes the White House Correspondents' Association should decide which reporters receive credentials. The press, in other words, should police itself and prevent the government from stifling free speech.
Helen Thomas told me a couple of things when I was a young reporter covering Ronald Reagan. She told me if I wanted to make friends, go into another business. After I was called rude and disrespectful for questioning President George H. W. Bush, she told me, “I don’t think it’s disrespectful to ask a tough question.”
Put another way, if the president can’t handle the press, then how can he handle Vladimir Putin? China? North Korea or even our allies, if they push back. There’s a reason why we look like a joke to the rest of the world. Our president is the snowflake, not those who question him. The president also is unaware of history. The adversarial role between the press and the president is necessary and vital to the nation. McCurry said, in this former role, he learned important things from the questions reporters asked and it made Clinton a better president to listen to what people were asking.
“Believe me, I know what it’s like to be hammered by the press,” he explained. Specifically, from April Ryan, he learned about the important issue of reparations. “We had to craft policy because of a question she asked,” he explained. Going forward, the adversarial relationship must continue. It is how the government is set up. A free press enables the people to see how their government works. There are those who think we are rude. So be it. There are those who think we should show solidarity with Acosta and walk out of the press room in protest. That’s garbage. It will never happen and it is foolhardy and naïve to pretend otherwise.
On Sunday, my other mentor, Sam Donaldson, defended Acosta while CNN weighed the possibility of filing suit against the Trump administration for Acosta's press pass being pulled. Donaldson said of Trump's "small base" of reporters, "They don't run this country and they never will," followed by "Keep it up!"
He said the same thing to me 27 years ago when I was fired by a television station after I had been "rude" to President Bush. Donaldson's still here. I'm still here. Acosta is still here. It's the presidents who leave. Donaldson and Thomas taught me a valuable lesson and I hope I never let them down: Just ask the question.
I’m not walking out on this White House. I’m walking right inside and demanding more access. The only way you’ll get me out of the White House is if they do to me what they did to Acosta. Meanwhile, take a look at what’s really going on. How long before we’re all engulfed in a civil war is one of two questions on my mind. The other is, When are you going to let Jim Acosta back in the White House? I vow to ask both questions every day until I get an answer.