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White House backs off battle with CNN

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The administration also released new rules requiring all reporters to ‘yield the floor’ after a single question during press conferences | Al Drago — Pool/Getty Images

The White House said Monday it was abandoning its plans to bar CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House, a major victory for the news media, but the administration also spelled out a list of new rules for reporters’ behavior and warned that it would crack down on those who step out of line.

The new rules, released by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, will require all reporters to “yield the floor” after a single question during news conferences, unless they are granted a follow-up question by the president or another official taking questions. Breaking those rules “may result in suspension or revocation of the journalist’s hard pass,” the White House statement said, referring to the badge that lets reporters freely enter and exit the grounds.

In response to the White House decision, CNN said Monday afternoon that it would drop its lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s White House. News organizations including POLITICO had criticized the administration’s decision to yank Acosta’s press pass after a dispute involving a news conference. But the new rules for journalists unveiled Monday show the ongoing tension between the media and the White House and create uncertainty about whether the administration will try to strip others of their access.

Future legal fights over the rules are likely, depending on how the White House enforces them, which could be welcome news to a president who has sought to cast the press as his enemy and frequently attacked reporters as a way to fire up his base.

“Today the @WhiteHouse fully restored @Acosta’s press pass. As a result, our lawsuit is no longer necessary,” CNN Communications said in a tweet Monday afternoon. “We look forward to continuing to cover the White House.”

Acosta tweeted, “Thanks to everybody for their support. As I said last Friday… let’s get back to work.”

Acosta had his press credentials suspended following a fiery exchange with Trump in a news conference on Nov. 7, during which he resisted when a White House intern attempted to take a microphone out of his hands. The White House initially claimed, using an apparently altered video as evidence, that he inappropriately touched the intern. Officials later changed their rationale to say that Acosta had breached unwritten standards of decorum for the press.

On Friday, District Court Judge Timothy Kelly ruled that Acosta’s due process rights had been violated because the White House had not given him any explanation of why his credentials were being revoked, nor had they given him a chance to appeal. Kelly ordered the White House to reinstate the hard pass for two weeks. The judge was careful to note that he had not ruled on whether the White House had violated Acosta’s First Amendment rights — specifically, whether the White House was truly targeting the reporter for his coverage and not his news conference behavior, as CNN argued.

During the court proceedings, Department of Justice lawyers made the sweeping claim that the president has the authority to kick any reporter out of the White House for any reason — a major expansion of what’s understood to be the president’s power over the press. Legal experts were skeptical of the argument, citing a 1977 D.C. Circuit Court ruling that specifically prohibits expelling reporters “arbitrarily or for less than compelling reasons,” but the judge never ruled on that argument direction.

Before the announcement Monday afternoon, White House officials appeared ready to keep fighting CNN tooth and nail over Acosta’s security badge.

White House officials sent notice to Acosta on Friday saying they had made a “preliminary decision” to revoke his press pass over his prior behavior and giving him a chance to contest the decision. CNN requested an emergency court hearing to ask Kelly to extend Acosta’s press pass for more than the two weeks allowed in the initial order.

Media law experts were skeptical that a fresh White House attempt to separate Acosta from his security pass based on the same incident would survive in court. William Youmans, a media law professor at George Washington University, said he didn’t think the White House’s latest gambit to take away Acosta’s pass would succeed because officials seemed to be attempting to create standards for reporter behavior after the fact. “They’re just making it up as they go along,” Youmans said.

The White House later reversed course and said it was restoring Acosta’s press badge.

“They got tired of the situation and have moved on,” one former White House official said, adding, in reference to Acosta, “They’re going to put in the new procedures and see if he sticks by them.”

Sanders laid out four rules “governing future press conferences” in her statement.

The first states that a journalist who is called upon “will ask a single question and then yield the floor.”

The second rule says that follow-ups may be granted “at the discretion of the President or Other White House official” taking questions.

The third defines “yielding the floor,” saying that includes “surrendering the microphone to White House staff.” During the encounter that prompted the White House to initially suspend Acosta’s hard pass, he declined to give up the microphone to a press assistant who was trying to take it from him.

The final rule states that “failure to abide” by any of the others “may result in suspension or revocation of the journalist’s hard pass.”

Sanders’ statement also warned that there could be more rules to come.

“We are mindful that a more elaborate and comprehensive set of rules might need to be devised, including, for example, for journalist conduct in the open (non-press room) areas inside and outside the White House and for Air Force One,” she wrote. “If unprofessional behavior occurs in those settings, or if a court should decide that explicit rules are required to regulate conduct there, we will be forced to reconsider this decision.”

In a letter to Acosta, obtained by POLITICO, Sanders laid out the rules and warned the reporter, “Should you refuse to follow these rules in the future, we will take action in accordance with the rules set forth above.”

Last week, White House Correspondents’ Association president Olivier Knox said his organization has a “role to play” in creating any new rules for reporters’ behavior, but he said Monday that the group was not consulted.

“The White House did the right thing in restoring Jim Acosta’s hard pass,” he said in a statement Monday evening. He added, “For as long as there have been White House press conferences, White House reporters have asked follow-up questions. We fully expect the tradition will continue. We will continue to make the case that a free and independent news media plays a vital role in the health of our republic.”

Trump, in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace that aired Sunday, tipped that the White House was working on “rules and regulations” that would govern the conduct of journalists, calling Friday’s legal developments “not a big deal.”

“We’ll have rules of decorum, you know, you can’t keep asking questions,” he said. “Look, nobody believes in the First Amendment more than I do. And if I think somebody’s acting out of sorts, I will leave. I’ll say, ‘Thank you very much, everybody, I appreciate you coming,’ and I will leave.”

Gabby Orr contributed to this report. 

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