The ongoing war between the Trump administration and the national news media picked up another shouty new data point today, when CNN’s Jim Acosta and senior White House advisor Stephen Miller started tearing into each other at a press briefing on immigration. The exchange started when Acosta, referring to Donald Trump’s efforts to prioritize green card applicants based on job skills and the ability to speak English, asked Miller how that plan jibed with the “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” ethos of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” the poem engraved at the base of the Statue Of Liberty.
Miller shot back by pointing out that the poem, and its pro-immigration message, weren’t original features of the Statue, which, while true—despite Acosta muttering that it sounded like “National Park revisionism”—does seem to negate more than a century of the Statue’s existence as a beacon of hope for people looking to America as a place to start a new life. (On the other hand, if we thought this particular administration was going to let poetry—even beloved poetry that stands at the heart of America’s better nature—dictate foreign policy, we were probably fooling ourselves.)
Acosta and Miller proceeded to take turns angrily interrupting each other, but the ugliest moment came after Acosta directly asked whether the policies were meant to curtail immigration from countries where English isn’t the national language. Smelling blood in the water and a shaky high ground to seize, Miller quickly started a game of that old debate club classic, “I’m Not Racist, You’re A Racist,” calling Acosta “ignorant” and “foolish” for suggesting people from other countries couldn’t learn English. Picking up speed and vigor in the wake of this spurt of apparent moral superiority, he shut Acosta and his “cosmopolitan bias” down, loudly declaring, “The notion that you think that this is a racist bill is so wrong and so insulting,” before realizing he’d gotten a little too far up his high horse, sheepishly handing the briefing back to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
And yet, as ugly as this interaction got, with Acosta debriefing afterward on CNN, saying, “I think when the White House has to resort to insulting reporters in that fashion—and we’ve seen this time and again throughout the course of this administration—they’re just really not advancing a terribly powerful argument,” it’s still better than the usual Trump policy these days, which increasingly veers toward no televised press conferences at all.