Jim Acosta Describes Why He Attacks Trump
It has become commonplace for President Trump and his allies to label journalists as members of the opposition, or even to call them “enemies of the people.” In response, reporters have adopted a range of strategies, from trying to appear nonpartisan, no matter how outrageous Trump’s behavior, to speaking out against his falsehoods and threats to press freedom. And there is Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, who has been at the network since 2007, after a stint at CBS News. Toward the end of the Obama Administration, Acosta made headlines for asking the President, of ISIS, “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” During the past two years, Acosta has used even stronger language to become one of the most visible symbols of the war between Trump and the media. He has been called names by the President; he has bickered on camera with the outgoing White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and with Stephen Miller, Trump’s far-right senior policy adviser. After a White House intern tried to take a microphone from Acosta, he briefly had his White House press credentials revoked. He tweets about Trump’s contempt for the truth, and his own willingness to speak it. Now he has written a book about covering the Trump Administration, “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America.”
Acosta’s role has been controversial beyond a White House that clearly disdains him. His sense for the theatrical—such as reciting Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” to Miller during a press conference, or baiting Sean Hannity on Twitter—has led to criticism that Acosta is stepping beyond the traditional journalistic role to insert himself in the story he is covering. I recently spoke by phone with Acosta about his views of journalism, the role of cable news in Trump’s election, and whether he has become too large a part of the story that he is covering. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
What do you think the role of the press is today, and should the press be conceiving of that role any differently given the Administration that is in power?
I think we do have a slightly different role today. I was brought up in this business that we were just staying in our lanes as straight news reporters—and I am still striving to do that, and I think we are all striving to do that—but we are in this unprecedented environment now. This goes back to the campaign, with then candidate Trump referring to us as the “disgusting” news media, the “dishonest” news media, “scum.” You had crowds with thousands of people saying, “CNN sucks.” It is this unprecedented environment of hostility that we have been in since he was a candidate, and it has continued to this day. That is one of the reasons why I wrote this book: that there are some supporters of the President—certainly not all, the majority of them are wonderful people—but there are some of them who lash out at us in ways that make us feel endangered.
The other component is that you have a President who I think is pretty dishonest a lot of the time. I am not comfortable calling the President out for his falsehoods and lies, but it is part of our job and something we cannot shy away from. And I think that process has upset the President, his team, and a lot of his supporters, and I think that is why you see so much hostility directed at us, simply because we are correcting the record and making sure the American people have the facts.
You write, “I have seen my life turned upside down covering Trump. His attacks on me and my colleagues, dedicated and talented journalists, have real-life consequences. My family and friends worry about my safety. I hope at the end of the day the sacrifice will be worth it. No. I know it will be.” Those are your italics. What is it, specifically, that you are sacrificing for?
I think we have all sacrificed some of our sense of being safe covering this President, at his rallies, and simply being out on the street as reporters. I have received a number of death threats that come in on a weekly basis, basically ever since he called me and my news outlet “fake news.” I have had to change the settings on my social-media accounts because of these threatening messages. During the midterm-election cycle, I was in contact with the F.B.I., with local law enforcement, because of the various threats and threatening messages. And it’s one of the reasons why I thought this was an important story to tell. I think the American people have a right to know about this.
I know it’s not something that makes everybody comfortable, but this is not an exaggeration. This is going on. And, I want to point out, this is not just happening to me. It is happening to other reporters, other news anchors, other journalists who are covering this President. The question that I have for folks is: Do we want to continue to have a political climate in this country where the press is referred to as the “enemy of the people”? Because my sense is that, if we keep going down this road, things are going to get worse.
Your book jacket reads, “Jim Acosta never wanted to be the story,” and you write that, after a contentious news conference, “the magnitude of my actions started to dawn on me. In the moment, I had merely acted to try to get Trump to take my question. Now, as I made my way across the lobby of Trump Tower, I realized that I had done something that would be considered pretty controversial: I had made myself part of the story.” One of the critiques of you is that you willingly or want to make yourself part of the story. How do you answer that critique?
I was raised in this business not to make myself part of the story. I have never wanted to be part of the story. When I was sitting there at that news conference, in January of 2017, I was listening to the President-elect describe a real story as being fake. And yes, you and I, Isaac, people in our business, know that that is not true. But there are millions of supporters of the President who take his word for it. And so what was going through my mind was not just that he was telling the world that up was down and black was white. He was attacking our news organization in an unprecedented way. And I thought, If he is not going to take my question, I am going to butt in here and see if I can get my question asked. And that is why you saw the confrontation that ensued.
Now, do I wish that had never happened? I suppose, in a perfect world, I wish it hadn’t happened, but, at the same time, if I had to do it all over again, I would do that all over again, because I don’t think the President of the United States should be in the business of attacking news organizations in that fashion. I think it is at a level which is not in keeping with normal Presidential behavior, and I think it is outside the bounds of what is acceptable in the United States.
I think we totally agree about that. What I am asking is that I know you made headlines during the Obama Administration for asking Obama, “Why can’t we take out these bastards?” about ISIS. You are on cable news, and part of cable news is to provide something people want to watch—
I think that’s being too cynical, Isaac. I know where you are going with this, but I think that is being too cynical. You have to look at every reporter’s body of work. Not every time I asked Obama a question was I asking a question of that nature. At that time, I thought he wasn’t really dealing with the reality that was out there in the country, that folks were deeply worried about what was happening with the spread of ISIS. During that press conference, he was talking about it very coldly, very clinically, and my sense of it was that he didn’t get it at the time. And that’s why I asked the question in that fashion.
And I am not going to tell you to do that, Isaac, because, my goodness, I would never do this to you, but, if you were to go and look at the transcripts for when I asked President Obama questions, or Jay Carney, or Josh Earnest [Carney and Earnest both served as Obama’s White House press secretary], even Donald Trump, there are times it has been a pretty straightforward fashion. The questions aren’t designed to up my profile or get a book deal or things like that. They are designed to ferret out information and get people something resembling the truth. And sometimes you have to do that in not a straightforward fashion. If I had to go back and do that again, I would basically go back and do it all over the same way again. I might trim the sails here and there.
Trim the book sales?
No, I reject that. And, you know, after the book came out, I have primarily been tweeting out excerpts from the book and trying to get people interested in what’s in the book. So, listen, I know there is cynicism out there about what we do, but I am trying to approach this in a straightforward way, Isaac.
I think that, across the industry, we have all learned some lessons from the 2016 campaign. I think even some of the network executives have acknowledged that it may not be a good idea to air these rallies end to end because the President isn’t always dealing with the facts. And now what I think you are going to see moving forward is a lot more fact-checking of these rallies, and, to a large extent, not showing them end to end. I think that will be immensely valuable to the American people. I know it frustrates them behind the scenes of the Trump campaign. We know they are upset that they are not getting blanket coverage the way they did during the 2016 campaign. I think you are going to see the press as a whole get much more savvy moving forward.
But I will say, Isaac, there is a little bit of a two-dimensional caricature of the coverage that happened during the 2016 campaign. I would invite reporters to go back and look at what major newspapers were putting on their Web sites. A lot of the main pages were dominated by Donald Trump during the campaign. This whole notion that it was just this news outlet or that news outlet—I would invite folks to look at the record.
[CNN representative cuts in to say that there is only time for one or two more questions.]
Recently, you tweeted at Sean Hannity, “Two things Sean… #1 I offered to come on your show and talk about the book and you guys declined. Sad! #2 you’re in the book. It was that time you had a chance to say something to my face but didn’t. Enjoy!” What’s the idea in going after Hannity?
He was going off on me around the time that my book came out. And I thought, If he is going to do this, I should respond. And one of the things we did, Isaac, before the book came out, is we approached all the news networks and said, Listen, I am available to talk about this. I am happy to do it. We made an appeal to Fox News: I’d love to come on and talk about the book, and, if you guys want to give me that opportunity, I’d take it. And, up and down the dial, they weren’t interested. So I think it is kind of rich that they are coming out attacking my book and attacking what I do without giving me the opportunity to respond. And so that’s why I tweeted that there have been moments when I have come face to face with them and they haven’t said a thing to me. And so my sense of it is, if they are going to criticize me like that, they should at least give me the chance to respond. Unfortunately, they don’t want to do that, and that is “sad!” in my view.
How do we separate calling out lies like the Inauguration crowd size versus calling out statements or policies, like you did when you said that Trump’s immigration policies were “not in keeping with American tradition.” I personally agree with that, but I am wary of straight news reporters calling that out. How do you distinguish between those things, if you do?
You know, I try to distinguish it the best way that I can, Isaac, and I understand it is not a perfect science, and, if someone wants to build a better mousetrap and get back to me, I am all ears. My sense of it is that there aren’t two sides to a story when it is right versus wrong. When it comes to equivocating over white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, I don’t think we can be over here on the news and say, “Well, on the one hand, there are fine people on both sides in Charlottesville, but, on the other hand, there are not.” To me, it’s pretty clear-cut what went on down at the border when children were being taken away from their parents. That was atrocious, and the media reported it as such.
The Presidency was an office that was held in high esteem, and the President has degraded the office, to some extent. That has dragged the press into a situation where either we whistle past the graveyard or we call these things out as we see them. I know that hasn’t made my reporting everyone’s cup of tea.
When you quote the Emma Lazarus poem to Stephen Miller, are you hoping to change his mind? To reach viewers? What is going through your mind?
My thinking at that moment is that everyone is watching this live, and they are seeing someone standing at the podium saying they are not just going to change the nation’s immigration system but the prevailing sense of what immigrants have been to America for generations. And I thought, at that moment, what Stephen was talking about was essentially a policy that flies in the face of America’s tradition of welcoming immigrants into this country, a tradition that says not all immigrants have to come into this country speaking fluent English and having a Ph.D. There are folks, like my dad, who came into this country at eleven years old, couldn’t speak English, couldn’t write English, but was pulled aside in class and taught how to do that and worked as a blue-collar guy in grocery stores for forty years, but paid into Social Security, paid into Medicare, and helped raise two kids who are doing quite well.
That, also, is part of our immigrant experience. And what I thought was happening that day with Stephen Miller was that he was again trying to tell the American people that up was down and black was white. Telling people that the Statue of Liberty doesn’t apply to immigration, to me, was a huge moment, because it said to me that they are not really willing to deal with reality when it comes to advancing their interests and their agenda. And that has to be called out, in my view.