Conservative radio host Sebastian Gorka, right, speaks with Playboy's Brian Karem, after President Donald Trump spoke about the 2020 census in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, July 11, 2019.
FILE - Conservative radio host Sebastian Gorka, right, speaks with White House correspondent for Playboy magazine Brian Karem, after President Donald Trump spoke about the 2020 census in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, July 11, 2019.

WASHINGTON - The White House’s suspension of a reporter’s press credentials earlier this month is drawing fire from press freedom advocates who say it’s an example of how the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to silence journalists and other critical voices.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham suspended Playboy Magazine correspondent and CNN analyst Brian Karem’s pass for 30 days earlier this month after Karem got into a shouting match with conservative radio host and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka in the Rose Garden following a social media summit last month.

This is the second time the White House has pulled an accredited reporter’s press pass and comes as Trump continues to denigrate critical media outlets as “Fake News” and “enemy of the people,” encouraging public distrust of the media.  

Last November, in a move unprecedented in the modern era, the White House lifted CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s media credentials just hours after he had a testy exchange with Trump at a White House press conference.   After CNN sued Trump, a federal judge reinstated Acosta’s pass, ruling that its suspension had violated Acosta’s right to due process. 

FILE - A White House staff member reaches for the microphone held by CNN's Jim Acosta as he questions U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference at the White House in Washington, Nov. 7, 2018.

Now, Karem is suing Trump and Grisham for violating his constitutional rights and asking another federal judge in Washington to restore his press credentials.  The judge, Rudolph Contreras, expressed displeasure with Karem’s behavior as well as the White House’s standards for revoking his press pass. He said during a hearing on Tuesday that he’ll issue a ruling in the case as early as Friday and no later than Tuesday.  

“As this event proved, the nature of journalism has changed quite a bit,” Contreras said. “I’m trying to figure out where the lines are.”
 
While Justice Department lawyers representing the White House called Karem’s actions “clearly unacceptable” and defended the procedure used to pull Karem’s pass as “transparent, deliberate and careful,” the veteran reporter said he was singled out by the White House because of his critical coverage of the administration and blunt questioning of Trump.

“They just want to punish me,” Karem said in an interview with VOA.  “They want to punish me because they don’t like what I write.  I’ve written 100 and some odd articles since the beginning of this administration and asked some very pointed questions of the president. I don’t think he likes the pointed questions, and I don’t think he likes or his staff likes what I’ve written.”

Nora Benavidez, director of U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America, which is suing Trump and this week filed a brief in support of Karem’s lawsuit, said the press pass suspension was emblematic of the White House’s treatment of dissenting voices.

“It’s an example of efforts to uniquely target journalists who are asking difficult questions of the White House who are perhaps demanding and seeking to cover the White House in ways that the president dislikes,” Benavidez said.  “In and of itself that is discrimination and a violation of the First Amendment.”

The White House rejects the charge.

“The reality is that the White House press corps is populated by reporters who are aggressive questioners of the President and White House officials, many of whom are extremely critical of the president and his policies,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in response to Karem’s lawsuit, which was filed on August 20.   

Karem, 58, is a long-time print and television journalist and a self-styled “First Amendment Activist” who once went to jail over refusing to disclose a confidential source.    In the two years since becoming Playboy Magazine’s senior White House correspondent, he’s become something of a controversial figure in the press corp, praised by fans for asking probing questions of Trump and administration officials and criticized by others for his overly aggressive style.

FILE - Brian Karem, right, White House correspondent for Playboy magazine, gestures as he reacts to responses by then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left, during a daily briefing at the White House, in Washington, June 14, 2018.

In a widely circulated exchange in June 2018 with then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders over her defense of the administration’s policy of separating migrant families, Karem, standing in the back of the briefing room and wagging his finger, asked Sanders, “You’re a parent.  Don’t you have any empathy? Come on, Sarah, you’re a parent!”

The day before his pass was suspended, Karem asked Trump at the White House to comment on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ characterization of Trump as a “pathological liar.”  Trump, who has called Karem “Fake News,” did not respond, though he did answer two of his questions the next day just before he had his credentials removed.  

The altercation that led to Karem’s press pass being pulled took place as Trump wrapped up a 50-minute speech to a “Social Media Summit” on July 11 attended by about 200 conservative online activists.  

After Trump left without taking questions from the press and the activists began taunting the journalists for being rebuffed, Karem, according to his lawsuit, sought to “diffuse the situation with humor” by saying, “This is a group of people that are eager for demonic possession.”

The comment sparked laughter in the crowd but did not sit well with Gorka who turned to Karem and shouted, “And you’re a ‘journalist,’ right?”

The confrontation escalated. Karem, standing behind a rope in the press area, asked Gorka to “come on over here and talk to me, brother, or we can go outside and have a long conversation.”

Accusing Karem of “threatening” him, Gorka then “made a beeline” for the reporter, shouting into his face, “You are a punk! You’re not a journalist! You’re a punk!”

FILE - Conservative radio host Sebastian Gorka yells at White House correspondent for Playboy magazine Brian Karem after President Donald Trump spoke about the 2020 census in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, July 11, 2019.

The confrontation was captured on video and went viral on the Internet.  

On Twitter, Gorka wrote that he “read [Karem] the riot act.”  In a tweet the next day, Trump, who let go of Gorka in 2017 apparently after Gorka lost his security clearance, wrote that Gorka “Wins Big, No Contest!”

In a statement issued earlier this month, Grisham accused Karem of using his press pass “to insult invited guests and make comments that threatened to escalate into a physical confrontation to the point that the Secret Service intervened.”

Karem denies making threats.  

“Only in this administration would an invitation to a conversation be deemed a challenge to a fight,” Karem said in an interview.  

The Trump administration is not the first to draw the ire of journalists.  The administration of former President Barack Obama was repeatedly criticized for using the Espionage Act to prosecute leakers and threaten journalists.  Obama preferred using digital media over holding press conferences.   One critic once called the Obama White House “most closed White House” in history.