By Elias Miller
BU News Service
CNN’s Chief White House correspondent discussed his theories on impeachment with a packed audience Tuesday night, and touched upon his time in what he called the “press cage” while covering President Donald Trump’s administration.
Jim Acosta, famously singled-out by Trump’s administration for his coverage of the president, said the president has, “to a large extent, put himself in this situation” by showing animosity toward the press and breaking previous norms of presidency. He cited the challenges of doing his job, such as diminishing press briefings, in a context of rising tensions towards journalists.
Acosta’s forum, though planned in advance, coincidentally took place within the context of the Trump-Ukraine scandal, with news of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump breaking exactly a week prior.
“There’s a lot of twists and turns between now and when the House takes the vote, if they do decide to take a vote,” Acosta said. “It does feel like it’s been leading up to this.”
The forum was moderated by CNN Political Commentator and Harvard Institute of Politics Resident Fellow Alice Stewart at the Harvard Kennedy School. Acosta told Stewart he believed there has been a shift in the president’s approval rating after the inquiry began.
“When the president of the United States gets on a phone call with a foreign leader, and that foreign leader is talking about how he really wants to get his hands on some military assistance so he can fight the Russians, and then the president says, ‘Can you do us a favor, though?’” Acosta said. “I think that that is a very serious matter.”
CNN’s polling showed that 41% of Americans supported impeaching and removing President Trump in May of this year, though late September polling by CNN showed an updated 47% of Americans supporting the removal from office of the commander-in-chief.
Though his reporting has spanned four presidential campaigns on top of state and local politics, Acosta claimed he has never witnessed hostility comparable to that of Trump rallies.
“People would come up to our press area—we called it the ‘press cage’—and shout ‘traitor’ in our face,” Acosta said, recounting times when he and his colleagues feared for their safety.
This hostility has not improved with time, he said. In the president’s course from candidate to commander-in-chief, Acosta notes that President Trump has escalated the intensity of his rhetoric. While campaigning, then-candidate Donald Trump would call CNN and their colleagues the “dishonest news media.” Since taking office, he has switched to “the enemy of the people.”
While Acosta understands that some may dismiss Trump’s attacks on the press as simple “trolling,” he points out that, among Trump supporters, “not everybody is in on the act.”
Acosta referenced the recent conviction of Cesar Sayoc, who mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democratic Party politicians in October 2018 and routinely harassed Acosta with death threats and a picture of a decapitated goat’s head up until Sayoc’s arrest. Sayoc was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Acosta also recounted good experiences with supporters at Trump rallies, cautioning the audience at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum not to demonize the president’s base as a whole or characterize them all in the same manner. Some supporters, he said, came up to him after rallies had ended to apologize for their candidate’s behavior.
One Trump supporter had personally thanked Acosta for lending a chair to his mother. To the cameras, viewers could clearly hear packed audiences yelling out “Fake News” and “CNN Sucks” at the journalists’ press risers. Privately, on the other hand, several walked up to Acosta after the rallies wrapped up to disavow Trump’s attacks to the press.
Because of his own background, Acosta said he relates to many Trump supporters.
“I grew up in a blue-collar home, my parents split up when I was five years old, my mother worked in restaurants her whole life, my father worked in supermarkets his whole life,” he said. “I was raised by a single mother; I am hardly part of the media elite.”
Acosta said he doesn’t view Trump supporters as monolithic, or even longtime Republicans.
“A lot of them look like Democrats to me,” he added. “When I go to the president’s rallies, a lot of them are disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters, a lot are folks from the labor movement who have given up on the Democratic party,” Acosta said. “They’re certainly drawn to what Trump is talking about.”