Reporter Pushes Judge to Reinstate White House Press Pass

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge said Tuesday he hopes to rule within the next week on the press-pass challenge brought by a Playboy reporter whose confrontation with a former Trump administration official at the White House went viral.

President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he departs after the presentation of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point football team, in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Alleging free-speech and due-process violations, Brian Karem lost his White House press pass after he squabbled with Sebastian Gorka, former deputy assistant to the president, in the Rose Garden on July 11.

Karem says the suspension of his pass causes irreparable harm, but U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras did not signal which side’s arguments he found more convincing after a two-hour hearing this morning.

Contreras was doubtful, for example, that the White House would be powerless to suspend Karem if he had “dropped his pants and mooned the press secretary,” but at the same time said the White House employed a “murky” standard for assessing when a reporter steps out of line.

The July 11 incident is well-documented, with multiple videos showing different segments of the confrontation from different angles. Karem’s attorneys played five separate videos at Tuesday’s hearing, and much of the discussion was devoted to painstaking parsing what they actually captured.

Karem is seen in the footage shouting a question at President Donald Trump from the press pen, as White House reporters often do at events where Trump speaks but does not formally take questions.  

Trump continued walking without a response, however, at which point others at the event began mocking Karem. The group included many prominent Trump supporters, who were at the White House attending a social media summit.

Karem has said his response — a quip that “this is a group of people that are eager for demonic possession” — was meant to be a “Rodney Dangerfield-style” joke to defuse the tension.

While some people laughed at the joke, Gorka, who was attending the summit, did not find the humor. He started shouting at Karem and eventually walked across the Rose Garden to call him a “punk.” One member of the audience yelled, “hit him, Gorka,” while others chanted Gorka’s name.

How the Playboy reporter contributed to the incident is sharply contested. While Karem insists Gorka was the instigator throughout the confrontation, the White House says Karem threatened Gorka to the point that a Secret Service agent stepped in to diffuse the situation.

Karem says he tried to “de-escalate” the situation by inviting Gorka to talk outside, a comment he insists was harmless, but that the White House paints as Karem challenging Gorka to a fight.

“Everyone knew [Karem] was out of control in that moment,” Justice Department attorney James Burnham said in court Tuesday.

Karem also shouted to Gorka to “get a job” and bantered with the other attendees who were heckling the press after Trump left the event, conduct Burnham said was clearly out of line.

The White House suspended Karem’s press pass on Aug. 16, calling Karem’s behavior during and after the event in the Rose Garden a violation of “widely shared understandings and norms of media professionalism.”

But Karem’s attorney, Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher partner Theodore Boutrous Jr., said those standards of professionalism are far from clear. Boutrous also said White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham made her decision to suspend Karem’s pass using arbitrary criteria.

He said the suspension, which deprives Karem of his ability to report on the White House, is a continuation of Trump’s more widespread attacks on media based on his personal preference, and that it is the White House, not Karem, that abandoned professional norms.

“They’ve thrown decorum out the window,” Boutrous said in court Tuesday. 

But Burnham said the court should give Grisham deference, because part of her job as press secretary is determining who can join the White House press corps. He said the sanction is “very minor” and that hard passes give reporters a right to report on the administration, not to become the subject of the news as Karem did during the incident.

Contreras said he hopes to rule on the preliminary injunction Karem has requested by Friday or early next week.

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