Jim Acosta, the square-jawed CNN correspondent, has stood out among the White House press corps for his impassioned on-air monologues about the importance of the First Amendment.
During a tense White House briefing on Thursday, he challenged the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to disavow President Trump’s description of journalists as “the enemy of the people.” Ms. Sanders declined to do so, saying she had been personally attacked in the media and had faced threats since starting her job.
Opinions on the exchange varied.
Many liberals praised Mr. Acosta for confronting Ms. Sanders, particularly after he had faced vitriol from Trump supporters at a Florida rally on Tuesday. Many conservatives knocked Mr. Acosta as a biased showboat. And some of his rival White House reporters rolled their eyes.
Mr. Acosta, a CNN veteran, is used to it.
Since last January, when the president-elect shouted him down at a news conference, Mr. Acosta, 47, has been a featured player in the Trump v. Media battle royale. The president, no fan of CNN, has called Mr. Acosta “a real beauty” and refused to take his questions last month during a session with reporters in Britain.
All that has made Mr. Acosta a ripe target for Mr. Trump’s army of adherents. This week, Sean Hannity of Fox News ran a montage of “Jim Acosta Lowlights” and called him “a liberal partisan hack.” In Florida, Mr. Acosta, who is regularly escorted to rallies by security personnel, faced hostile Trump fans who interrupted his live shot and shouted “fake news.”
That set the stage for Thursday, when Mr. Acosta, breaking from the usual sober style of White House reporters, framed his question to Ms. Sanders as a moral choice.
“It would be a good thing if you were to state right here, at this briefing, that the press — the people who are gathered in this room right now, doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier — are not the enemy of the people,” Mr. Acosta said in his newscaster’s baritone. “I think we deserve that.”
Ms. Sanders deflected — and then mirrored Mr. Acosta’s tone.
“It’s ironic, Jim,” she said, “that not only you and the media attack the president for his rhetoric, when they frequently lower the level of conversation in this country.”
Ms. Sanders, without much evidence, went on to accuse the news media of using “personal attacks without any content other than to incite anger.” She also cited her experience at this year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner, during which the comedian Michelle Wolf mocked Ms. Sanders’s “smokey eye” makeup and compared her to “an Uncle Tom” for “white women.”
“You brought up a comedian to attack my appearance and call me a traitor to my own gender,” Ms. Sanders said. “As far as I know, I’m the first press secretary in the history of the United States that’s required Secret Service protection.”
Her answer did not directly address the question, so Mr. Acosta tried again, with more oomph.
“This democracy, this country, all the people around the world watching what you are saying, Sarah, and the White House for the United States of America — the president of the United States should not refer to us as ‘the enemy of the people,’” he said. “His own daughter acknowledges that, and all I’m asking you to do, Sarah, is to acknowledge that right now and right here.”
Ms. Sanders replied: “I appreciate your passion. I share it. I’ve addressed this question.”
At that, Mr. Acosta promptly walked out.
Those watching the exchange on television would have noticed the faces of Mr. Acosta’s fellow correspondents, some watching with curiosity and others averting their gaze.
“I don’t understand why it matters if Sarah Huckabee Sanders says she doesn’t think the media are the enemy of the people,” said Alex Pareene, a liberal commentator who has written for Splinter, Gawker, and Wonkette. “She isn’t the White House or the president. Her words would be meaningless and would have no effect on either Trump’s supporters or even the president himself.”