Acosta was involved in a fiery exchange with President Donald Trump during a lengthy, post-election news conference at the White House earlier Wednesday. After repeatedly asking the president questions, provoking a heated outburst, an intern stepped forward to try to take a microphone from the CNN reporter as he moved to evade her. Within hours, Acosta said the Secret Service had denied him entry to White House grounds and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed the reporter had placed his hands on the young woman.
That account prompted a full-throated outcry from many political journalists.
The White House Correspondents’ Association, a coalition of the reporters who cover the executive branch, released its strong objections to the move, calling the decision “out of line” and “unacceptable.”
“Journalists may use a range of approaches to carry out their jobs and the WHCA does not police the tone or frequency of the questions its members ask of powerful senior government officials, including the president,” the group wrote. “Such interactions, however uncomfortable they may appear to be, help define the strength of our national institutions.”
The group urged the White House to “immediately reverse this weak and misguided action” and encouraged the public to watch the video of Acosta’s interaction with the intern.
Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, said the move was a “very bad sign” and something he had “never seen since I started covering the White House in 1996.”
“Other presidents did not fear tough questioning,” Baker wrote on Twitter, noting that Trump may have intentionally called on Acosta to lash out. “If he really thought [Jim] was unfair, then why did he call on him? Because he wants the confrontation.”
Reuters’ White House correspondent Jeff Mason, who said he was seated next to Acosta, said he did not see his colleague “‘placing his hands’ on the young intern.”
Others called the move “incredibly concerning,” said it simply “didn’t happen” or noted that the administration was likely trying to manufacture a “fresh controversy for the base” following the midterm elections.
Even Ben Shapiro, a notoriously conservative commentator, defended the CNN journalist, writing back to Sanders that her account was “not what happened.”
“You could have banned him simply for refusing to abide by any of the normal rules of the press room,” Shapiro wrote. “No need to state something that didn’t happen.”
Other reporters noted that even though, as the BBC’s Jon Sopel put it, Acosta may be a “royal pain in the ass” for Trump, he was just doing his job.
Despite the criticism, Sanders doubled down on the White House’s decision late Wednesday evening, releasing a video on her Twitter account that played a moment from the encounter on a loop, slowing down and zooming in on the footage.
“We will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video,” she wrote.
CNN stood by Acosta, sharing the same video interaction “for the world to see” on Twitter.
“This unprecedented decision is a threat to our democracy and the country deserves better,” CNN said in its statement. “Jim Acosta has our full support.”