Reviewed 6/30/2019

The Enemy of the People, by Jim Acosta

A Dangerous Time To Tell the Truth in America
Jim Acosta
New York: HarperCollins, June 2019




ISBN-13 978-0-06-291612-9
ISBN 0-06-291612-2 352pp. HC/FCI $27.99

It's all too easy on reading the first chapter of this book to conclude that CNN reporter Jim Acosta is too full of himself; that he feels he's being treated unfairly merely because he's getting the same pushback that Trump gives all journalists. And some — too many, in my opinion — do take that position. I would advise those people to consider the book's Prologue once again. Let me summarize it for you: It describes Acosta's first hearing that Cesar Sayoc, an ardent Trump supporter, had mailed a pipe bomb to CNN headquarters in New York.1 It's all too easy to accept the Trump line that his divisive rhetoric, such as calling the media "the enemy of the people," has no influence on violent people. The actions of Sayoc refute that claim, as do those of Robert Bowers2 and Edgar Madisson Welch.3 As Acosta reminds us, words have meanings, and violent words have power to drive unstable minds over the edge into physical violence.

The possibility that it might inadvertently incite violence aside, the Trump administration disregards truth and disrespects our Constitution and the institutions derived from it: Congress, the court system, the rule of law, the sanctity of "one person, one vote," and freedom of the press.

Trump had attacked the judiciary, Spicer had lied about the inauguration crowd size, Kellyanne Conway had pulled a nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre out of thin air, and Stephen Miller had said we couldn't question the president? It wasn't just this reporter, folks. Many of us in the press areas of the White House were looking at one another wide-eyed, jaws agape, dumbfounded. Sometimes it was just a knowing glance as we left the Briefing Room, but more often, we were all talking about it over drinks after work. (We certainly needed a few of those back in the early weeks of the Trump White House.) And we were all saying the same thing to one another, to our loved ones, to our family members, to our bosses, to anybody who would listen. It all boiled down to the same damn question: who the hell do these people think they are?

– page 62

But, in the main, what this book provides is "inside baseball": the account of someone reporting day by day on Trump and the White House, and running into a constant stream of lies and vitriol. It's true that Acosta defends himself and the CNN team throughout. I challenge anyone who's read the book to show he's not justified in doing so. Take just the flap over Acosta, as Trump's press secretary put it, "placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern." This is the subject of Chapter 13, "A White House Smear." They purported to prove it with a doctored video. It led to Acosta's White House pass being revoked without due process, putting his career in jeopardy. The revocation was reversed by a Trump-appointed judge.

Acosta comes across in this book as a man with a sense of humor and a sense of justice, a man dedicated to making sure the American people know the truth of what their government is doing. Achieving that goal entails frequent confrontations with Trump and with press secretaries Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It also requires enduring a cascade of taunts and death threats on social media: threats real enough that he now has 24-hour security at his home and a squad of defenders when he covers a Trump rally. His account of the Trump administration is fascinating in the way that anyone paying attention to this deplorable administration has come to understand: a litany of endless lies4 and constant hostility toward any criticism, no matter how well-founded. Once I got into it, I could not stop reading; in some sense it resembles a comedy of errors, except that there's nothing humorous about what The Donald and his minions are doing. As Acosta clearly understands, and as he shows us, this administration is unraveling the fabric of American democracy and giving license to foreign leaders like Rodrigo Duterte5 who might be disposed to crack down on their opposition. Long gone are the hopes that Trump would grow into the office.

After the midterms, Trump continued to test America's durable Constitution. He shut down the government to force U.S. taxpayers to build his border wall, the project that in 2016 he had vowed Mexico would finance. When he didn't get his way during the shutdown, he declared a national emergency to circumvent Congress with a scheme to divert already appropriated funds to his border barrier quest. Some fellow Republicans accused the president of actually violating the Constitution, a rare proof of life from a party held hostage by its leader. The late senator John McCain, Trump's longtime nemesis, would have been proud.

But what more could Trump attempt with another term in office? At some point, I reckon, both parties will give in and let Trump have his way on the wall. But do Democrats really believe Trump will reciprocate with truly bipartisan initiatives to address, say, the epidemic of mass shootings that has ravaged communities from Newton, Connecticut; to Parkland, Florida; to Las Vegas? He obviously won't tackle the urgent crisis of climate change, which he still sees as a hoax, despite what all the scientific evidence tells us.

– page 346

Because it lacks an index, I cannot give this book full marks or call it a keeper. Nevertheless, I consider it — the testament of a man who spent time in the trenches and laid his career, if not his life, on the line in order to stand up for the values that made America great — a must-read. Trump threatens those values. It is vital to understand the full magnitude of the danger he represents.

1 Sayoc mailed a total of thirteen pipe bombs. In addition to CNN headquarters, to George Soros, his targets included Democratic politicians including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the actor Robert De Niro, a strong critic of Trump. Sayoc lived in his van, which bore the legend "CNN sucks" and images of the people he targeted with crosshairs over their faces. Previously, he had been active on social media, making threats to various people including Acosta. See pp. 286-291. Trump had labeled CNN, and Acosta in particular as its chief White House correspondent, purveyors of "fake news."
2 A few days after Sayoc was arrested, Robert Bowers shot and killed eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. He had connected Jews with support for the migrant caravan "invasion," as Trump described it. Trump had also mentioned George Soros, a Hungarian-American Jew, as bankrolling the caravans.
3 Welch traveled from North Carolina to Washington, DC to deal with what he thought was a real pedophile ring operating out of the Comet Ping Pong pizza joint. He shot up the place (but hit no one) and got a four-year prison term. This bogus "pizzagate" pedophile ring notion was promoted by Alex Jones, whom Trump had endorsed.
4 The Washington Post, which is keeping track, puts the tally of Trump's lies and misleading statements at 10,796.
5 The Philippines is one of the most dangerous nations for journalists. The Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists said: "What he has done with these irresponsible comments is give security officials the right to kill for acts that they consider defamation. This is one of the most outrageous statements we have ever heard from a president in the Philippines." Maria Ressa, a Pilipina journalist critical of Duterte, was recently released on bail after her second arrest.
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