The US broadcaster CNN has described a decision by the White House to revoke the press pass of one of its senior correspondents as a threat to democracy.
Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, had his credentials suspended following a heated exchange with Donald Trump, during the president’s first news conference after the midterm elections.
The White House said it was because of “inappropriate behaviour” on the part of the reporter towards a female member of staff.
The 90-minute news conference featured tetchy exchanges between the president and several correspondents, as Trump’s turbulent relationship with some media outlets was illustrated once again.
Acosta took the president to task over the migrant caravan heading through Mexico towards the American border. The CNN correspondent asked whether Trump was demonising migrants and disputed his claim that the caravan amounted to an “invasion”.
When Acosta tried to ask a further question about the Russia investigation, Trump said “that’s enough”. As the reporter persisted, the member of staff tried to take the microphone from him. There was brief physical contact as she reached across him, and Acosta said “pardon me, mam” as he tried to concentrate on asking his question.
Later the White House said it was suspending the correspondent’s pass until further notice.
In a series of tweets defending the decision, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president believed in a free press but that the administration would “never tolerate a reporter placing his hand on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern”.
Later she tweeted a 15-second video of the exchange, including close-up replays, in which the sound appears to have been silenced.
Some of Donald Trump’s supporters have applauded the decision to revoke Acosta’s pass, saying he had “manhandled” the White House staffer. But others took to social media to praise the reporter for trying to hold the president to account.
To some of his critics, not only does the move impose restrictions on the media trying to do its job, the reason given is a brazen example of the White House lying in plain sight.
Jim Acosta tweeted, describing Sanders’ allegation as a lie. CNN also gave a staunch defence of its reporter, accusing the White House official of giving “fraudulent accusations” and citing “an incident that never happened”.
Other media outlets and correspondents have spoken out in support of CNN and its reporter. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press tweeted to condemn the Trump administration’s “clearly inappropriate and unprecedented punishment”.
The news conference, which became increasingly bad-tempered, and the subsequent row have prompted predictable reactions from each side of the increasingly entrenched political divide.
With the Democrats having gained control of the US House of Representatives, even some critics of the president have warned that he may benefit if the news in the coming months is dominated by Democrat-led investigations and rows with the media.
There is a debate in Democrat circles over how hard to attack Donald Trump over misconduct allegations, against the risk that the party is seen by voters as neglecting issues that concern them.
At the same time, the opposition and the media will be determined to hold the president to account – even more so following the sacking of Attorney General Jeff Sessions – to defend the separation of powers, and carry out constitutional checks on the executive.