UPDATED with Grisham reaction: A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the White House to restore the hard pass of Playboy’s correspondent Brian Karem, whose credentials were suspended after a raucous incident in July in which he got in argument with former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka following a Rose Garden ceremony.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras granted Karem’s motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. He found that White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham’s rationale for revoking the pass was too vague.
“White House events appear to vary greatly in character,” Contreras wrote in his opinion. “Thus, without any contextual guideposts, ‘professionalism,’ standing alone, remains too murky to provide fair notice here.”
After Grisham informed Karem she was suspending his hard pass for 30 days, calling his conduct “unacceptable and disruptive,” he sued. A hard pass, meant for full-time reporters at the White House, allows reporters to come and go without having to apply for credentials each time they visit.
Grisham later Tuesday issued a statement in which she said, “We disagree with the decision of the district court to issue an injunction that essentially gives free reign to members of the press to engage in unprofessional, disruptive conduct at the White House.
“Mr. Karem’s conduct, including threatening to escalate a verbal confrontation into a physical one to the point that a Secret Service agent intervened, clearly breached well-understood norms of professional conduct.”
Karem’s legal team argued that the suspension of his hard pass violated his due process and First Amendment rights, as the White House is a quasi-public space with a dedicated space for journalists. They claimed the Trump administration was singling him out because of his coverage, which is often critical of the administration. Contreras, however, determined that Karem’s due process was denied, but declined to rule on whether the Trump administration also violated his free speech rights.
Instead, he focused on the incident itself, concluding that “Karem has provided some evidence that White House press events are often freewheeling and that aggressive conduct has long been tolerated without punishment.” He noted that the press corps often shouts out questions and engages in arguments with no punishment on the order of having their press pass pulled.
The judge’s decision is the second victory for Karem’s attorney, Theodore Boutrous, who also was retained by CNN last year when then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pulled the credentials of its chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. A federal judge later ordered that his hard pass be reinstated, also concluding he was denied due process.
This time around, attorneys for the Justice Department argued that Grisham did give Karem, also a CNN contributor, a chance to respond, as she informed him in a letter on August 2 that she had made the preliminary decision to suspend the hard pass. Karem’s lawyers met with Grisham, but she informed him on August 16 that her decision was final.
After the Acosta incident, the White House did issue a set of guidelines for behavior at press conferences, but did not address other events, other that to reference the “professionalism” of journalists covering the administration.
Contreras found that term too abstract.
“Though ‘professionalism’ has a well-known common meaning, it is inherently subjective and context dependent,” he wrote.
Karem and Gorka got into a confrontation following the conclusion of the Rose Garden event, in which Trump spoke to an audience that included Gorka and other right-leaning media personalities and supporters, including Joy Villa and James O’Keefe.
Karem, standing behind a designated rope line to pen in reporters, at first engaged with one of the attendees and quipped, “This is a group of people who are eager for demonic possession.” Gorka then shouted at him, “And you’re a ‘journalist,’ right?”
Karem responded, “Hey, come on over and talk to me, brother, or we can go outside and have a long conversation.”
Gorka then approached him, saying, “You are threatening me now in the White House. In the Rose Garden. You are threatening me in the Rose Garden.” As Gorka got about 2 feet away, he shouted at Karem, “You are a punk. You are not a journalist. You are a punk.”
As Gorka walked away, and those in the crowd began chanting, “Gorka! Gorka!,” Karem said, “Go home” and then shouted at him, “Hey Gorka, get a job!”
Grisham claimed that Karem “threatened to escalate a verbal altercation into a physical one to the point that the Secret Service deemed it prudent the intervene,” and that Karem later sought out Gorka in the Palm Room of the White House “in what quickly became a confrontational manner while repeatedly disobeying a White House staffer’s instructions to leave.”
But in legal documents and in a hearing last week, Boutrous disputed that account, saying that far from trying to escalate the situation, Karem was merely trying to talk to Gorka and even extended his arm for a handshake.
“No doubt, Karem’s remark that he and Gorka could ‘go outside and have a long conversation,’ was an allusion to a physical altercation, but the videos make clear that it was meant as an irreverent, caustic joke and not as a true threat,” Contreras wrote.
He also wrote that the videos of the incident contradict the notion that a Secret Service agent had to intervene to stop Karem and Gorka from fighting. He noted that the agent walked right past Karem as the exchange with Gorka was concluding, only to return when he heard someone call Karem a “punk ass.”
“Rather, Karem and Gorka each had ample opportunity to initiate a physical altercation, and they each made the decision not to,” Contreras wrote, adding that “this event was also one where jocular insults had been flying from all directions.”
Karem wrote on Twitter after today’s ruling, “God bless the Constitution, free speech, due process and @boutrousted and his great legal team.”
In an interview, Boutrous noted that the judge “debunked every one of the White House’s arguments.” He said that they could continue to pursue the case or appeal the judge’s order.
“If they maintain their position, we will go forward and litigate the merits of the case,” he said, adding that would entail seeking discovery and depositions.