A conversation with "The Enemy of the People": CNN's Jim Acosta on the war on truth

CNN's White House correspondent on Trump's attacks: "What started out as an act has gotten out of control"

Published July 4, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Jim Acosta (Getty/Mandel Ngan)
Jim Acosta (Getty/Mandel Ngan)

In the surreal landscape of America under Donald Trump, the people tasked with covering the news have themselves become major figures in the story. No one represents this more clearly than Jim Acosta, CNN's White House correspondent, a regular target of the president's ire who has been demonized, attacked and repeatedly threatened by Trump's supporters.

It is vastly understating the case to say that this is clearly not a good sign for the health of democracy. For the president to attack members of the White House press corps and major news outlets as liars, dispensers of "fake news" and "enemies of the people" — a phrase transparently borrowed from totalitarian despots of the past — is virtually without precedent. For reporters to become celebrities in their own right, beloved by some members of the public and despised by others, is not entirely unknown. But that too is a symptom of our distorted media landscape and our confused relationship with reality, symbolism and simulation.

The combination of those things, in my view, is dire and potentially deadly — to democracy, to the possibility of civil discourse, to any shared vision of truth and the future of America and the world. Jim Acosta stands at the heart of that contradiction, partly by accident and partly because he has seized the moment. He is not unaware of his historical role, as he recounts in his new book "The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America" and as he discussed with me in our recent Salon Talks conversation.

TV journalists and "print" journalists — the term is a metaphor in describing what I do — are interdependent but tend to regard each other warily. There's a kind of built-in conflict: The showboats vs. the eggheads; the "mass media" constantly descending toward the lowest common denominator and the "old media" clinging to the charming notion that people still want to read.

I feel zero condescension toward the work Acosta has done in the Trump White House: He has been admirable and at times highly courageous in standing up for what he perceives as truth-telling amid a blitzkrieg of lies. In the face of Trump's all-out assault on the free press, it is urgent and important for journalists to stick together, even if we understand the job and the profession — and the truth, for that matter — in different ways.

But I would be less than honest if I didn't also say that cable news — CNN and MSNBC and of course Fox News, and more minor outlets too — has itself been a major contributor to America's problem with truth and reality, and with the more ambiguous category of meaning. (What is true is important, of course. What really matters may be more important still.) All those networks feast on fear, confusion and division; they grew fat on the rise of Donald Trump, whose ratings were amazing, love him or hate him. They did not perceive the scale of the danger he represented, or the history that led us here. I'm quite certain they still don't.

Jim Acosta one-on-one is pretty much identical to Jim Acosta on the air. He conducted our interview via Skype, literally from the White House lawn on a summer afternoon. He kept wandering around, trying to avoid the hum of network generators and the suspiciously loud birdsong. (Our video producer wondered whether it was piped in or amplified. Warbler-gate! The plot thickens.) The lessons of on-air standards die hard: I told Acosta we had no limitations on off-color language, but the strongest term he uses is "My goodness." He says that a lot.

Watch my conversation with Jim Acosta below. What follows is a nearly complete transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jim, let's start with a question you address directly in "The Enemy of the People." You have come to play a role in the story of the media and the Trump White House. You're not just a reporter, you are also a character in the drama. From people in our profession, I've heard every opinion ranging from "Jim Acosta is a hero, speaking truth to power" to "Why is this asshole trying to put himself in front of the cameras and be the star?" How have you managed that, and how do you think about it?

Well, I appreciate the question. I would say, listen, it is sometimes difficult to stay in your lane as a reporter when you're getting run off the road by the White House and by the president. We have seen that go on over the last few years. I will say that I was raised in this business to not make myself part of the story. That's how I was brought up in this industry. Whether it was in local news, in places like Knoxville, Tennessee, or Dallas or Chicago, or at the network level at CBS News or at CNN. It's important to me. 

But I'll take you back to January of 2017, when we had that press conference where the president called me fake news. He was attacking our news organization, saying that a story that we had covered about the U.S. intelligence community going to the president-elect and saying, "There may be a problem here. The Russians may have compromising information on you." The president-elect, as he was at that point, called that fake news. He was intentionally telling the public that up was down and black was white. 

So yes, at that point I pushed back. I interrupted the press conference, I tried to get my question in. That's when you saw Donald Trump refer to me and my news organization as "fake news." Now, that really hasn't stopped ever since. 

As I write in the book, what I think started off as an act has gotten out of his control. At that [later] press conference in February of 2017, when he called me "very fake news," right after that Hope Hicks, one of his top aides called me to say, "Jim, the president thought you were very professional today and said, 'Jim gets it.'" This, I think, was an act in the beginning but the president has proceeded to go on to call us the "enemy of the people" so many times now that it doesn't even register as a blip on our radar screens anymore. 

Yes, I've tried to push back when it's been necessary. But I think if you look at the body of work, if you look at the record of what I've done over the last few years, that hasn't been every time I've gone out in front of the cameras or every time I've picked up a microphone. Certainly, opinions are going to vary. But if I had to do what I've done all over again, I would essentially do it the same way.

So how much of Trump's attitude towards the press is shtick, an act designed to fire up his supporters who have, let's say, a built-in prejudice about the "liberal media"? And how much does it reflect a genuine conviction on his part that in some way he's not being treated fairly? 

Well, I think it started off as a way to taunt and troll us. As I write in the book, Steve Bannon says he and the president, essentially together, came up with this idea to start calling us the "enemy of the people." Obviously the expression has been around much longer, and people like Stalin have used that expression to demonize their opponents. But this was done at the very beginning of this administration as a way to pull the press into this combative environment that he thrives on, and it is an environment that he uses to excite his base. 

As I heard from one senior White House official as I was writing this book, the expression the "enemy of the people," when it's applied to the press is not meant to incite the people. It's meant to incite the media. They want us to have this discussion on Twitter and social media and so on.

But here's the problem, and this is where I hope folks will focus as they read this book. Not everybody is in on the act, and the president has demonized us in ways and put rhetoric out there that I think has inflamed the political environment in this country to the point where folks absorb this hostility, they absorb this rhetoric, and they direct it back at us in ways that make us feel endangered. 

I'm not just talking about myself. Yes, I've received death threats. Yes, I've seen threatening messages come into my social media on a regular basis. But there are other journalists out there, other reporters, other news anchors who have covered this president who have been going through the same thing. As I've been telling folks, I've covered four different presidential campaigns. This is my second administration. I've never seen anything at this level before, and we have to think deeply about whether or not this is the kind of political climate we want in this country.

A potential mail bomb was sent to CNN last year, and others were sent to several other news organizations and prominent liberal donors and Democrats. At Trump's re-election rally in Orlando, a news photographer was ambushed and punched in the face by somebody. There have been a bunch of incidents like that. I don't know that we can blame the Annapolis newsroom shooting on a Trump supporter, specifically, but it's a troubling indicator of what can happen. How close are we to an environment where the president's supporters inflict lethal violence on journalists? Is our profession prepared for that?

I think that is the danger, and here's what happens. The day that somebody is seriously injured or, God forbid, killed, the United States of America is no longer the place you and I grew up in anymore. At that point, this country crosses over into a new territory where we join a list of countries around the world where the press is not really safe doing its job covering the presidency. The question that I raise in this book and I've tried to raise when I talk to folks: Is this the kind of climate that we want to pass on to the next generation?

I think more of a pressing question and a pressing concern in our immediate future right now is, where does it go from here? How do things escalate from here? If it's generally acceptable to everybody for the president to refer to the press as the "enemy of the people," where does it go after that? How do things escalate from that standpoint? My sense of it is that we don't want to go down this road. People don't want to go down this road. I think I'm well within my lane, as a straight news reporter, to raise these questions. This has been happening to me, and so I feel as though I'm in a good position to talk about it.

What happens to this country if, on the morning after a campaign rally, we're talking about somebody who has been seriously hurt or killed? What started off, for the president, as taunting and trolling and having a good time on social media and firing up people over at Fox News — I don't think he fully understands the ramifications of what he's dealing with at this point, and that's part of the reason why I wrote this book. Just to fire off a flare into the sky, throw up a caution flag, to say this is not the road we want to go down.

This is Donald Trump's M.O. though, isn't it? I mean, he's now made a couple of remarks about wanting to stay in office longer than eight years. He would describe those as "jokes," and that's probably the conscious intention. He does not appear to understand that those "jokes" represents a fundamental threat to the Constitution and the nature of our republic.

That's right. We've gone from the president referring to fake news to now fake polls. What's next? Fake election results? I mean, that is destabilizing to any democracy. 

What I say to folks is that there's no guarantee that the American experience that we've all grown accustomed to over the last generation continues to exist as it stands right now. Michael Cohen, during his hearing up on Capitol Hill, famously said he's not sure whether or not Donald Trump will give up the presidency if he loses. As I write in my book, I consulted with a handful of presidential scholars and historians. One of them, Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia, not exactly a raging progressive, said to me in my book that he has never contemplated a scenario where a president would try to attempt a coup to stay in power, at least not since Nixon, until Donald Trump came along.

It's not just folks in the press, it's not just folks on the left, or maybe left of center. There are people right of center, as we know, and people in academia who are deeply concerned about this rhetoric and whether it's just going to take things too far. I'm not here to say vote for this person or vote for that person. I am here saying that we need to think about this rhetoric and whether or not it's healthy for our democracy.

When you look back at the 2016 election, there was a perception that mainstream media organizations such as yours, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, such as the other news networks, played a role in the outcome, because of the way they covered Trump and the way that they covered Hillary Clinton. They shaped a collective overconfidence that Trump couldn't possibly be elected, and also a narrative of moral or ethical equivalence between two candidates where there was no possible equivalence. How do you evaluate that looking back?

Well, I think you raise some very good points, and this was obviously an issue during the aftermath of the 2016 campaign. People were asking the question whether we gave too much coverage to Donald Trump. I'll say a couple of things about that. One is, obviously, Donald Trump was the frontrunner through most of the GOP primary process. What I say to folks when they ask me this question, because it gets asked from time to time, is, are we not supposed to cover the Republican frontrunner during the campaign? I think to some extent we had to.

Now, I do think moving forward you're going to see less of those rallies covered end to end. That is something that we saw a whole lot of during the 2016 campaign, and I think there's a recognition, not just on our part at CNN, but across the industry, that when you have a president who's been in office for two years and he's been found to have uttered approximately 10,000 false or misleading statements since he's been in office, that perhaps airing these rallies end to end is not going to be a good thing in terms of getting reliable, accurate information to the American people. I think you're going to see fewer rallies covered end to end, and I think you're going to see more coverage after the rallies are over with fact checkers. 

Just recently we hired Daniel Dale from the Toronto Star, a terrific reporter, who I think understands Trump's falsehoods better than Trump himself. You're going to see more of that kind of coverage heading into 2020. To some extent, yes, we are learning some lessons from the previous campaign, but I think that happens with every campaign cycle. 

Now, as for Hillary Clinton, one thing I will say is that folks in the press did not tell Hillary Clinton not to campaign in Wisconsin. I remember covering the 2016 campaign, covering Donald Trump and going to all of his rallies. We get back to our hotel at 11 or 12 o'clock at night. I touched base with my friends who covered the Hillary Clinton campaign, and they would say, "Oh, we've been at the Ritz-Carlton in White Plains since 7 this evening." [That's in Westchester County, New York, near the Clintons' home.] They were just running that campaign with a different pace and energy. I'm not calling into question what they did during that campaign, but I mean, folks can go back and look at the schedules. Donald Trump was campaigning around the clock for the presidency towards the end of that campaign. That's how I remember it.

I want to ask about your perception of how much of a departure Donald Trump really is. You make a case that this White House has represented an enormous change in the way it deals with the press, in the way it deals with information, in the way that it understands facts, in the way it understands truth. Fair enough, but aren't we talking about a gradual evolution in American politics? We had the Tea Party movement. We had a Republican Senate that refuse to consider a legitimate supreme court nominee for political reasons. We had an administration that had secret torture sites in places we never knew about, and probably still don't in the world that we never really even found out about. Even the Obama administration considered prosecuting Jim Risen, the former Times reporter, for his contacts with whistleblowers. Are we seeing a radical shift or is it a symptom of something that's been going on for a long time?

It's a good question. I will say that I've heard many of these comparisons before, and I do remind folks from time to time, listen, if you think times are tough now, we did have this thing in the mid 2000s where a war was waged over weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist. We go through periods of turmoil in our nation's history, and one of the remarkable things about the United States is that we seem to keep making our way through those periods. That's a testament to the kind of country that was here before Donald Trump came along.

Yes, Barack Obama had his clashes with the press. I witnessed those first-hand covering the second term of his administration. But we did not have Barack Obama on almost a weekly basis referring to the press as the enemy of the people and accusing reporters of treason and calling legitimate stories fake news. There's an Alice in Wonderland, "Through the Looking Glass" quality to the way this president regards facts and truth. One of the things that I ask folks from time to time is, "My goodness, what kind of world would we be living in right now, what would be our sense of the truth and reality if we hadn't been fact-checking the president over the last two years?" He's turned all of us into fact checkers in real time. 

We're almost fact-checking on the fly while we're doing live shots on CNN these days. You'll be doing a live shot — the producer will get in your ear and say, "A tweet just came in." My attitude is, hold on a second. I want to look at this tweet. I want to read this tweet. I want to make sure it's factually accurate before I read it on the air. Because as we've seen so many times with the president's Twitter feed, and I take no joy in and saying this, his Twitter feed is sometimes a fact disaster. It's a fact catastrophe and a truth emergency. 

I think that that has made us sharper as reporters and it's put us in a position where maybe we're calling the president out. Not maybe: we are calling the president out for falsehoods and lies much worse than we used to with previous presidents, Republican and Democrat. But I can't think of a scenario where we just let all these falsehoods hang out there as the truth of reality. I think our sense of reality would be warped by this point had we not been providing that essential function over the last two years. 

One more question, Jim, and then I'll let you go. You make very clear in your book that you've had sources within the Trump administration and within the Republican Party who've talked about their level of discomfort with this president. But you also talk about the fact that the Republican Party, in general, has pretty much capitulated and gone along with him. Now we see former Vice President Biden, running a presidential campaign on the basis that some degree of normalcy can be restored to the Republican Party once Trump leaves the scene. How do you evaluate the idea that the Republicans will get all better again once Trump is gone?

Well, I think it's something of an existential crisis for the Republican Party right now. I think they're going to have to decide at some point just what to do about this president. As I write in the book, they've been realizing the short-term political gains, whether they be tax cuts or conservative judges and so on. They've had to stomach and deal with a whole lot of things that many of them consider to be reprehensible. As I write in the book, they clashed with the president openly, and it was one of the brief things where they disagreed publicly, over whether or not Trump should endorse and support Roy Moore [in the 2017 Alabama special Senate election]. He did it anyway.

I've talked to some Republicans who I guess you would call Never-Trumpers. I've talked to a lot of Republicans who work up on Capitol Hill who maybe wouldn't work for this president, but certainly have worked for people who have worked with this president, who were just putting ... it was like a face palm moment after moment on so many different occasions, where they would say to me on background, "My goodness, what is going on with him and Vladimir Putin?" Or, "My goodness, what is happening with Charlottesville?" As a party, they haven't gotten to a point where they're comfortable really taking him on publicly, and I wonder what will be that scenario when they ultimately do that.

My sense is that it's something that will come eventually. In politics you just can't outrun some of these things. Yes, we saw this during the 2016 campaign. We said, "There's no way you could say, 'I can shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.'" Or say that John McCain is not a war hero and get away with it. He has survived all of these, what would be political crises for any other politician. 

I'm glad you picked up on that part of the book because it's one of the parts of the book that I turned back to myself. I don't take any joy in talking about the Republican Party that way. One of my best friends is a Republican, and when you talk to folks privately, they pass along concerns that they won't talk about publicly. My sense of it is that dynamic is not going to stay private for very long. Those feelings are not going to be able to stay private forever. At some point, they're going to have to say something about it.

I was surprised, in this book, that Kellyanne Conway, during a one-on-one interview, said that she wasn't comfortable with the family separation policy at the border. She said that publicly on the record. My question is, "Well, how are you still working for this president then?" As I write in the book, they have compromised. They didn't compromise with Democrats, but they've compromised quite a bit with themselves. It's one of the more fascinating storylines of this presidency.

One word answer: Which was worse, Charlottesville or Helsinki?

Wow. Goodness. I still come back to Charlottesville as one of the defining moments of this presidency. I mean, Helsinki was rough and it was almost universally regarded as such. Even the president had to correct the record after Helsinki was over. But Charlottesville is one of those things that I just thought I would never see on American soil in my lifetime. Nazis and white supremacists on the march in a major — I guess it's not a major American city, but a city that is so important to this country and its history. The home of Thomas Jefferson.

Like I said earlier, I don't take any joy in any of this, but the president of the United States equivocated over white supremacist violence in that city. It is one of those moments where I think we're going to look back five, 10, 15 years from now and we're going to say, "My goodness, that was a failure. That was a failure that just let everybody down across the country."

You'll notice that the president and his people, they get very fired up about this. They don't like it when we call them out on that, but I just don't see how you can describe it as anything but equivocating on white supremacist violence. I think that is undoubtedly what we saw take place over those four or five days after what happened in Charlottesville.

It's going to be something that will always stay with me because I was covering the president so closely during that time. I never thought I would see a president behave in that manner.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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