CNN's Jim Acosta On Trump, Journalism And Why He Isn't An 'Enemy Of The People'

Download Audio
"The Enemy Of The People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America" by Jim Acosta. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Enemy Of The People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America" by Jim Acosta. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta has been a frequent focal point of anti-press rhetoric from the Trump administration: President Trump has called Acosta a "rude, terrible person" and "fake news."

Acosta is the first to admit that “there have been times where, yes, the president and I have tangled with one another.”

But he tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that in those head-to-head instances, his primary goals have always been to report the news and “stand up for the truth.”

News watchers know Acosta as determined and, some argue, over-the-top when it comes to trying to get the president to answer questions. At some points in his career, he's become part of the story — earning both praise and criticism for his brash style.

However, his newly released book, “The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America,” isn’t just focused on his personal run-ins with Trump. It’s about protecting freedom of the press and showing what happens to a democracy when the media is under attack, he says. Acosta says threats of violence against him and his colleagues have escalated and made them feel “endangered” on the job.

“I just want folks to be aware of this so we can think about this and say, 'Jeez, do we want this to be how things go for the next couple of generations?' ” he says.

Despite being labeled by some as “fake news,” Acosta stresses the job of journalists is to sometimes “deliver to the American people painful truths.”

“We have to speak truth to power,” he says. “That's why we're here.”

Interview Highlights

On whether he’s taking Trump’s bait

“Well I think we can't avoid covering the news and when the president says something like that you're the enemy of the people, I think I'm well within my right to stand up and say this is well within my lane as a journalist and as an American to say that that's not appropriate. We should not have the president of the United States referring to segments of American society as the enemy of the people. And I'll take you back to the press conference at Trump Tower after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville when I asked him a question and I said, 'Mr. President, the neo-Nazi who started this down in Charlottesville,' and he proceeded to say well there were very fine people on both sides. And at that point I interjected and I said there are no fine people in the Nazis. I didn't put those comments in the form of a question because I didn't think I needed to. They are bad people.”

On if Trump’s presidency has been dented by his response to events like Charlottesville

“I think his presidency has been dented. It's been damaged by some of these episodes and it was the Charlottesville episode where I came to the conclusion that when you're reporting the news and reporting on this presidency that there aren't two sides to a story when it's a matter of right versus wrong. When the president of the United States equivocates over white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, you have to essentially call it like you see it.”

On being called the “enemy of the people”

“First of all, as I write in the book we've been thrust into an unprecedented situation. We've had presidents come and we've had presidents go from both parties and they've gotten frustrated with our coverage from time to time, but they've never taken their frustration to this extent where they're referring to us as fake news and the enemy of the people.

“As The Washington Post discovered recently and laid out, the president has made approximately 10,000 false or misleading statements since the beginning of his presidency. And my goodness, what would be our sense of the truth and reality these days if we hadn't fact-checked this president in real time and that's what we've had to do as journalists. I think back and I write about this in the book about my father's experience being a Cuban refugee and fleeing Cuba for the United States three weeks before the Cuban missile crisis. You know, his experience has always given me an appreciation for the freedoms that we have in this country such as freedom of expression [and] such as a free press. And when I went to Cuba in 2016, I had a chance to ask Raul Castro a question: 'Why do you have political prisoners? Why don't you let them go?' A Cuban reporter can't get away with something like that, but a Cuban American can. That has been an asset to the American people. And one of the reasons why I wrote this book is I want folks to think deeply about where we are right now. And do we want to have the federal government — which the president of the United States is the federal government — referring to journalists as the enemy?”

On overcoming the president’s anti-media rhetoric

“What I talk about in the book is we've got to get back to a place where we have a little more faith in one another. We can't have Trump supporters only trust what comes out of conservative news media and vice versa. One of the things I let the reader in on is what's been going on behind the scenes. On the same day that the president called me ‘very fake news’ at a press conference in February of 2017, his top aide Hope Hicks called me on the phone and said, 'You know Jim, I just want you to know the president thinks you acted very professionally today and he says Jim gets it.' OK, if the president is so steamed at me and he thinks I'm ‘fake news,’ why is his top aide calling me and saying that the president thought I did a good job today. What I've found in writing this book is that this started off as an act, a continuation of his reality TV style bluster that we saw on the campaign trail, and it's gotten out of control. Many of his supporters, not all of them, a lot of those folks are wonderful people, but some of them have absorbed that rhetoric and then directed it at us in ways that have made us feel endangered.”

On his father being an immigrant from Cuba, and covering immigration politics

“As I write in the book, there was that confrontation that I had with Stephen Miller, one of the president's top domestic policy advisers and an architect of much of his immigration policy over at the White House. We got into a back and forth over the Statue of Liberty and what it means to this country and Miller tried to say that the Statue of Liberty is not a symbol to immigrants coming to our shores, and I said to him that day that that was national park revisionism. I mean when my dad came to this country, he and other Cuban Americans [who] were making a life here were not referred to as rapists and killers and criminals. My dad told me the story about how a Presbyterian church provided them with coats and sweaters so they could be warm during their first winter.

“That has been, in my view, what has been best about America, when we are welcoming to people of all walks of life coming to our country — not open borders as the anti-immigration zealots describe it. And so I feel I'm well within my lane as a straight news reporter to say you can't rewrite our nation's history and say that the Statue of Liberty doesn't represent the best of America, that it doesn't represent our immigrant story.”

Book Excerpt: 'The Enemy of the People'

By Jim Acosta


“This is CNN breaking news. . . .”

I was sitting on a plane just minutes after takeoff when the news alert flashed across the cabin’s TV screens. It was the morning of October 25, 2018, and I was en route from Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport to San Francisco, where I would be delivering a speech at San Jose State University on the state of the news business under President Donald J. Trump and accepting an award from the school’s journalism program. I’d been planning on using the flight to work on my speech, but suddenly I was glued to the screen in front of me.

The New York City Police Department had units surrounding the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, across from Central Park. CNN’s headquarters was being evacuated after a suspicious package had been discovered in the building’s mailroom. A pipe bomb had been sent to CNN in New York, but its intended target was former CIA director John Brennan, a frequent Trump critic. The device was similar to bombs that had been mailed to Trump’s leading Democratic Party adversaries, including former president Barack Obama and Trump’s rival in the 2016 election, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

It has all been building up to some kind of act of violence, I thought. I had feared the day would come when the president’s rhetoric would lead one of his supporters to harm or even murder a journalist. And when it happened, the United States would undergo something of a sea change, joining the list of countries around the world where journalists were no longer safe reporting the truth. Perhaps we have already entered that era, a dangerous time to tell the truth in America. Of course, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it from where I was, strapped to my seat at the beginning of a five-hour flight to Northern California. All I could do was watch as the images of domes- tic terrorism played out on my tiny in-flight TV.

Yes, for a reporter, there are few things worse than missing a big story like this one. But “fear of missing out” was not the emotion I was feeling at that moment. I was pissed off. Really, really pissed off. This was a terrorist attack on my news organization and, without a doubt, on the American free press.

Since the days before the Iowa caucuses in 2016, I had covered both Trump’s unimaginable rise to power and his tumultuous presidency. My photographers, producers, and I had covered the rallies where Trump demonized the press, where he called us “disgusting” and “dishonest,” before moving on, at a news conference he held before being sworn into office, to dub my network and me “fake news.” We had listened to the chants of “CNN sucks” from his crowds of supporters, seen them give us the middle finger, and heard them call us “traitors” and “scum.” And of course, who could forget when the president of the United States said we were “the enemy of the people”?

On the way to California, I ripped up my original speech for the folks at San Jose State and started from scratch. The students, I had decided, would get the unvarnished truth about what I had been witnessing during my time covering Trump. I was afraid the president, I later told the crowd, was putting our lives in danger. But this was no time to back down. The truth, I argued, was bigger than a president who is acting like a bully. We were in a fight for the truth, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Excerpted from "The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America" by Jim Acosta. Copyright © 2019 by Jim Acosta. Republished with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. 

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaSerena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on June 11, 2019.


Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live