The struggle between Trump and The White House press corp escalated again with the unprecedented suspension of Brian Karem’s hard pass, which denied him the ability to report from the White House and restricted his First Amendment rights. Margaret Valenti writes on the necessity of free press to democracy in the United States.

The altercation that took place between right-wing commentator and previous White House aid Sebastian Gorka and Brian Karem on July 11th, 2019 resulted in the suspension of Brian Karem’s hard pass, a pass that allows White House Correspondents unfettered access to The White House. The removal of his pass is unprecedented and violates Karem’s First Amendment rights as he is unable to properly do his job as a senior White House Correspondent for Playboy and as a political analyst for CNN without this access.

July 11th, 2019 At The White House

The altercation between Gorka and Karem on July 11th, 2019 occurred at Trump’s Social Media Summit, the press standing behind a roped-off press area in the Rose Garden. According to court documents, the altercation between Gorka and Karem occurred as follows:

“[Karem] Gesturing toward the seated Summit attendees, he said, ‘This is a group eager for demonic possession,’ before saluting and turning away . . . Karem’s statement drew laughter from several of the attendees, but Gorka took it differently. Seated a number of rows in front of Karem’s position in the press area, Gorka turned around in his chair and yelled, ‘And you’re a ‘journalist,’ right?’—making air quotes with his hands . . . With the event having concluded, Gorka and other seated attendees began to stand, and as they did so, Karem said, ‘Hey come on over here and talk to me, brother, or we can go outside and have a long conversation,’ . . . Karem simultaneously motioned backward with his right thumb over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows . . . By the time Karem had finished his sentence, Gorka was walking briskly toward him across the Rose Garden—shouting, ‘Are you threatening me now in the White House? In the Rose Garden? You are threatening me in the Rose Garden?’ Karem, his voice now slightly quieter, explained ‘I said I’d be happy to talk to you,’ . . . Gorka, still yelling, responded, ‘You are a punk! You’re not a journalist! You’re a punk!’ . . . Gorka then turned and walked away, at which time some of the Summit attendees began chanting, ‘Gorka! Gorka! Gorka!’ . . . While Gorka walked away and the crowd’s chant was ongoing, Karem raised the volume of his voice again, and twice said to Gorka, “Go home,” before shouting ‘Hey Gorka, get a job!’ . . . A few minutes later, after leaving the Rose Garden, Karem saw Gorka again—this time in the White House’s Palm Room. Karem walked over, put his left hand on Gorka’s right arm, and tried to explain that, in making his earlier comment, he had only meant that he wanted to talk . . . Gorka, however, disagreed, which prompted Karem to raise his right index finger and repeat, ‘I said ‘talk.’’ . . . Gorka, who noticed that a White House staffer was trying to usher all press out of the room, responded by repeatedly saying to Karem, ‘You’re done,’ . . . Recognizing that he had to leave, Karem tried to shake hands, but Gorka refused, so Karem walked away.”

Three weeks after this incident, on Friday, August 22nd, Stephanie Grisham, the current White House Press Secretary, sent Karem a letter notifying him that his hard pass would be suspended for thirty days. Karem responded by filing a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction arguing that there was a violation of his First and Fifth Amendment rights.

Karem’s argument is that he was “never . . . informed of any rules governing such interactions . . . during my tenures working as a White House correspondent, I have never had any altercations with any member of any President’s administration or with the Secret Service . . .  reporters aren’t scribes and contention is normal. What is not normal is retaliation.” The type of retaliation Gorka provided in response to Karem’s comments at the Social Media Summit, which led to the White House’s thirty-day suspension of Karem’s hard pass, thereby preventing Karem from performing his job and denying him his First Amendment rights.

Defending Karem

Some White House Correspondents came to Karem’s defense and provided testimony on his behalf. Among those who testified were three current White House Correspondents and one former: Andrew Feinburg, the current White House correspondent for Breakfast Media LLC., Todd Gillman, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News (“The News”) since 2009 and White Correspondent since 2003, The Pavlovic Today’s Founder, Editor in Chief, and White House Correspondent, Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer, and Sam Donaldson, a DC-based reporter from 1961 until 2013. All submitted testimony “in support of plaintiff’s [Brian Karem’s] motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.” Other journalists came out in support of Karem via social media through their condemnation of the Trump administration’s decision.

In the testimony provided by these esteemed journalists, all point to concerns about press freedoms, First Amendment rights, and democracy, calling for a reversal of The White House’s decision to suspend Karem’s hard pass simply due to an altercation with Gorka. 

Overreaction by Gorka

As a guest of the White House, Gorka is expected to respect the White House and the press with decorum and professionalism. While the press can become rowdy, sometimes getting out of control, that behavior is usually tolerated. Insulting the press pool, all of whom contribute years of respectful and accurate journalism, takes things to another level. Clearly, there are people who the White House wants to delegitimize and then there are others, such as Gorka, who can act however they please with no repercussions.

Pavlovic Mcateer pointed out in her testimony that at the Social Media Summit, the guests of The White House attempted to provoke the press by calling the pool “fake news,” among other insults. Pavlovic points out that she did not “recall any instances of guests provoking the members of the press corps during the events on White House grounds.” She also wrote that “the atmosphere was reminiscent of a Trump campaign rally.” The situation was already tense, well before Karem’s comments that would insult Gorka.

The comments made by Karem at the summit, according to Sam Donaldson’s testimony, are simply a part of Karem’s personality. According to Donaldson, Karem is always trying to make people laugh in one way or another. The comment about “demonic possession” that started the whole debacle was an impersonation of comedian Rodney Dangerfield. However, Gorka took the comment out of context, with devastating consequences for Karem but, surprisingly, not Gorka, who implied violence in the first place. Keep in mind that Gorka has a reputation for confrontational behavior when interacting with journalists.

Andrew Feinberg testified that “Gorka, a self-described ‘alpha-male,’ has a well-documented reputation for rude and aggressive behavior towards members of the press and others, including challenging a journalist who’d criticized him in a tweet to a fight, getting caught on video . . . shoving that same journalist at a conference which took place months later, and cold-calling another Twitter user who’d criticized his national security credentials  and expertise.”

According to Karem’s testimony, “Gorka was celebrating his confrontation with the ‘fake news industrial complex’ and encouraging others to do as he did. He apparently used this episode for several days on his radio show . . . to further drive home his desire to confront reporters . . . I am not aware of any action being taken against Mr. Gorka or other attendees of the Summit who escalated the situation.”

Unprecedented

There is no precedent set for revoking a hard pass for a White House Correspondent based on the behavior similar to Karem’s. It has simply never been done, implying that The White House has an ulterior motive for suspending Karem’s hard pass. Sure Trump wants to defend Gorka, but he also wants to discredit Karem. He already tried to do this to Jim Acosta, a White House Correspondent for CNN, simply because Acosta asked a question the president did not like. However, The White House tried to frame the incident as if Acosta inappropriately interacted with a White House intern when she tried to take his microphone away. Sarah Sander’s even retweeted a doctored video of the incident as evidence. CNN ended up suing The White House and Acosta’s pass was reinstated.

It is not uncommon for President’s to get into squabbles with the press or complain about their coverage, but there is something unique going on with this President’s view of the press. In Donald Trump’s view, instead of begrudgingly acknowledging the importance of the press, he sees them as “the enemy of the people.”  

Sam Donaldson testified that “White House officials were free to complain to me or my employer about my coverage, and occasionally they did. And I often heard from some of the President’s public who told me, sometimes in vulgar and threatening language, how unprofessional, wrong and ‘un-American” they thought I was . . . I know of no instance that such action was taken or threatened against any reporter by any President because of the reporter’s work product or alleged misconduct during a press conference or other press event until President Trump took office . . . he goes so far as to say that the American press is ‘the enemy of the people’.  

Donaldson also wrote that “in suspending Brian Karem’s credential, the President is not only taking an unwarranted and in my opinion unconstitutional action; he is doing something that will have a chilling effect on the press as a whole and thus on the public’s need to receive objective and accurate information.”

For journalists who cover the White House, this is a difficult and unprecedented presidency to be working under. Those with hard passes are responsible for making sure that what is happening in the White House gets relayed to the public to help keep democracy running and keep the White House in check when necessary. This is why hard passes are necessary to democracy, as they give journalists with access to The White House so they can provide up to date and factual reporting of what occurs inside The White House to the public.

Todd Gillman declared that “journalists who cover the White House regularly are eligible for a hard pass. The process is managed by the White House Press Office. Applications require approval by the press secretary, followed by a background check by the Secret Service. The process typically takes months . . . eligibility for a hard pass has never been denied, revoked, or suspended for any reason other than an individual being reassigned from the White House beat or failing to use the pass regularly for extended periods, or a red flag on a criminal background check.” 

Karem’s behavior was not necessarily “professional,” as The White House correctly claims, but Sebastian Gorka and The White House — especially the President — are rarely professional when it relates to its unprecedented attacks on journalists. Karem was quick to point out certain aspects of the press pool work that do not always fit into the definition of “professional decorum” in his defense (yelling questions, for example).  The court granted Karem’s motion for a preliminary injunction in a statement which backed up Karem’s argument:

“That evidence includes a characterization of the White House press corps as ‘an unruly mob of reporters,’ . . . It includes stories of how journalists have ‘rudely interrupted’ Presidents and ‘berated’ Press Secretaries . . . have ‘breach[ed] etiquette’ by ‘heckling’ during Presidential remarks . . . and have shouted questions at the conclusion of Rose Garden events, drawing the ire of honored guests in attendance  . . . The evidence even includes an account of how two reporters once ‘engaged in a shoving match over positions in the briefing room,’ . . . This kind of behavior may have occasionally led the White House to speak with reporters’ employers . . . but it apparently never resulted in the revocation or suspension of a hard pass.”

A hard pass is essential for any journalist regularly working The White House beat. It requires unfettered access to many areas of The White House and its staff in order for journalists to do their jobs properly. What is required of them, essentially, is the ability to sort out what is going on, not going on, or being said and sometimes produce a trustworthy analysis given the facts. That, however, is impossible without unfettered access. Karem’s lack of access inhibits his ability to do the job Playboy and CNN hire him to do, affecting his job security now and in the future.

Gillman’s also included in his testimony that “even once a journalist is on White House grounds, a hard pass is essential for free movement in the places where press access is permitted, and thus for gathering news at the White House, where spontaneous briefings – and informal but journalistically productive conversations – frequently occur with the White House Press Secretary, other members of the press staff, and with senior and junior government officials . . . I believe that having a hard pass denied, revoked, or suspended would damage an individual journalist’s career, job prospects, reputation, and value to employers, and it would damage the news organization for which he or she works.”

Press Freedoms And The First Amendment

The suspension of Karem’s hard pass, similarly to when Acosta’s was suspended, is a way for the Trump administration to try to discredit legitimate journalists. In the U.S., The White House press corps is a necessary part of the democratic process. Otherwise, The White House might get away with operating in secrecy, which is perhaps how Donald Trump wants The White House to operate. He has an open disdain for journalists, unlike almost any U.S. President that precedes him.

Donaldson declared that Trump “praises foreign dictators for suppressing a free press entirely and when supporters at his political rallies verbally and occasionally threaten to physically attack reporters who are covering those rallies, he encourages them to do so . . . judging by his words and actions it almost seems that President Trump has declared war on the American press and reporters.”

Karem also testified that “the Trump Administration is the most inaccessible presidential administration I have covered. In particular, under former Press Secretary Sanders, the Administration largely did away with the daily press briefing—the standard for all previous administrations I have covered. Instead, reporters must be ready for unpredictable, informal gaggles with administration officials on the White House driveway. This inaccessibility has continued during Press Secretary Grisham’s tenure, who has yet to hold a single daily press briefing in the White House press room. It’s now been nearly six months since the last daily briefing . . . only this Administration would consider an offer to talk as a challenge to fight.”

There is a lack of press briefings, an open disdain for journalists, an encouragement others to threaten journalists, and the suspension of the hard passes of journalists in The White House press corp for no reason other than their asking of questions or their comments made towards a White House guest who looked to instigate confrontation; all of these actions to a President who wants to delegitimize respectable journalists. Why? So he can get away with destroying democracy because as long as The White House press corp is around he cannot and will not get away with it.

Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer wrote in her testimony that “a free media is an important part of any civic society and the democratic process. A true democracy should always invite freedom and welcome accountability. These should all be core goals and values of both political leaders and journalists alike. The White House press corp exists to assure absolute accountability of the democratic process. This is not the question of partisanship, it is the question of the purpose of [the] journalism and the universal principles it stands for.”

Journalism In The Trump Administration

Since taking office, Trump continuously attacks the press whenever his administration is questioned or disagreed with. The situation between Karem and the White House is simply an extension of a larger problem; the White House wants the public to hear their story and not be contradicted by those who may differ in their interpretation of what is said or what occurred. In other words, when a journalist crosses the White House with their own interpretations, they sometimes pay the price.  The removal of Karem’s press pass has nothing to do with his actions and everything to do with controlling the press.

The President supports the verbal harassment of journalists and supports right-wing commentators, such as Gorka, who do not report on facts and instead spread discrimination and fear into the hearts and minds of so many. During this administration, professional journalism is more necessary than ever. The danger to democracy is now the threat to journalists as a result of the Trump administration’s policies and actions. When journalists are denied their First Amendment rights, that act inevitably reverberates to have an effect on the public; denial of access to journalists, with no legitimate reason, is a denial of access to the public as well. 

It is up to journalists to continue their work and hold the U.S. accountable to the same democracy it claims to be the protector of. In this administration that may be near impossible, but the process of reinstating Karem’s hard pass is a step forward to further provide legal protection for journalists and protect them from the Trump administration’s policies. However, it is not only up to individual journalists like Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer, Tom Gillman, Andrew Feinberg, or Sam Donaldson to protect themselves. Everyone living in the U.S. needs to fight to keep the profession of journalism alive and well, and not let the Trump administration roll back our democratic right to accurate information which will loosen the fabric of what holds our democracy together. 

Margaret Valenti

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today.