Early this month, shortly before the White House made its decision to temporarily yank the press credential of a Playboy reporter, Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office to go over putting Brian Karem in the penalty box.
“I discussed it with [the president before proceeding] because I knew there had been issues before regarding what happened with [CNN’s] Jim Acosta,” Grisham told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. Late last year, the Trump administration, including Grisham’s predecessor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was forced ultimately to back down after CNN took Trump and his staffers to court over the revocation of Acosta’s White House hard pass. That episode resulted in a flood of press coverage, and a judge ruling that Team Trump had violated the constitutional rights of the network’s correspondent.
“Before doing something that could potentially get significant media attention, I wanted to make sure the president was aware,” Grisham added. “I went to him with my recommendation and he asked if I was sure, and I said, yes, I was sure. And he said ‘I support you,’ and that was that.”
Last month following a White House press conference in the Rose Garden, Karem, a flamboyantly outspoken, anti-Trump correspondent for Playboy, got into a heated exchange with bombastic former White House aide Sebastian Gorka after Karem said pro-Trump personalities present were “eager” to be possessed by demons. Gorka mocked Karem’s journalistic credibility, and the Playboy reporter asked Gorka if he wanted to “go outside and have a long conversation,” interpreted by Gorka and others as a ham-handed threat of physical violence.
Earlier this month, with the president’s blessing, Grisham announced she would suspend Karem’s security hard pass for 30 days. The White House argued that Karem’s behavior was “unacceptable and disruptive, and requires a response to ensure that it does not happen again.”
Karem, in turn, promptly sued both Trump and Grisham, hoping to reinstate his pass and argue that the month-long suspension was another front in Trumpworld’s all-out war on a free American press.
“The president took questions from Mr. Karem after this incident in the Rose Garden took place, so if we were trying to silence him as he purports, the president wouldn’t have taken his questions,” Grisham contended. “We also said Playboy was welcome to send a reporter in his place in the 30 days. This was in our written communications... Playboy and Karem’s attorneys didn’t respond to it.”
Theodore Boutrous Jr., a lawyer who represented Acosta and now Karem, has repeatedly argued that the suspension was “clearly pretextual, based on rules made up after the fact and applied to an incident that everyone had already forgotten about and that Ms. Grisham did not even witness.”
“The fact that the president took questions from Brian after the July 11 Rose Garden incident actually proves that there is no compelling reason to suspend him: they’ve never had a problem with his conduct before, and obviously do not think he has been causing problems since,” Boutrous told The Daily Beast. “With respect to Ms. Grisham’s second point, journalists are not fungible and sending a substitute does nothing to ameliorate the harm to both Brian and Playboy as a result of the suspension.”
In a court hearing on Tuesday, a U.S. District Court judge overseeing the case expressed skepticism of Karem’s argument that he was not threatening a physical altercation with Gorka. But the judge also seemed to push back against the White House’s rules about the professional conduct, and pointed out that the White House had ignored the conduct of some of its allies who were present during the confrontation.
Still, for as much as the Playboy correspondent antagonizes the White House, he doesn’t appear to take up too much space in the president’s mind, at least not nearly to the degree of Erin Burnett, Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo, or any of the other CNN regulars about whom the president has made a habit of nastily tweeting.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump from occasionally trash-talking Karem when he’s not around.
According to three people who’ve spoken to the president in the past year and a half about the Playboy journalist and CNN commentator, Trump has privately mocked Karem using typical Trump parlance, such as calling him “a nobody” and a “loser” who has repeatedly acted “very rude[ly] to” Sarah Sanders, the now-former White House press secretary who left her post earlier this year. (When the Trump White House used to hold televised press briefings, Karem and Sanders would tussle from time to time, with the former accusing the latter of lacking empathy and waging a war on the political press, and the latter accusing the former of just wanting to hog more of the media spotlight for himself.)
The ongoing court fight over Karem’s hard pass presents yet another legal headache for the administration. But among Trumpworld acolytes and its followers, the incident that sparked the legal battle merely gained Gorka, the former White House aide at the center of the Rose Garden episode, more attaboys and credibility among the Trump faithful.
Shortly after the verbal spat with Karem in the Rose Garden, Gorka headed over to the lobby bar and lounge area of the Trump International Hotel, just a short walk from the White House. When Gorka arrived at the hotel, numerous fans and strangers kept coming up to him, cheering him on and lauding Gorka for noisily confronting Karem, according to a source present at the time.
Gorka, a former White House official who was ousted during the start of the John Kelly era, is now a Salem Radio host who still enjoys the fandom of, and the occasional private audience with, President Trump. Early last year, the president invited Gorka back into the White House for a private dinner in part to gossip and to lavish praise on his ex-aide for his appearances on Fox News programs.
Karem, for his part, generally remains an outsider among the White House press corps. While much of the press corps values pointed, yet cordial questions, the Playboy correspondent often has no problem openly criticizing the administration during televised briefings. But in a statement this week, the White House Correspondents Association threw its official support behind Karem, filing an amicus brief supporting his legal action against the White House.
“We strongly disagree with the government’s argument that neither the due process clause nor the first amendment constrains the administration in determining who gets access to the White House,” WHCA president Jonathan Karl said in a statement. “We also believe giving the White House Press Secretary unfettered discretion to determine what is ‘professional’ or ‘unprofessional’ conduct would have a chilling effect on journalists.”
The Trump White House, unsurprisingly, is unmoved by this argument—at least as it pertains to Playboy’s White House correspondent and part-time Gorka antagonist.
“I really do stand by the decision that I made,” said Grisham “This is the White House and people should behave in a certain way when they’re here in a professional capacity, and he didn’t do that.”