WASHINGTON — When White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller called on CNN's Jim Acosta at Wednesday's press briefing, Miller knew what he was doing.
Miller had every reason to believe that Acosta would challenge President Donald Trump's support for the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, a measure that would cut in half the number of green cards issued annually. Miller must have known that Acosta would do more than just ask a question — that the CNN reporter, as is his habit, also was likely to challenge the Trump policy.
For one thing, Acosta and Team Trump have some history. When President-elect Trump held a press conference at Trump Tower in January, Trump and spokesman Sean Spicer slammed Buzzfeed for publishing a story about a dossier that included salacious but unsubstantiated allegations about Trump, as well as CNN for running a story on the Buzzfeed scoop.
Acosta's response: "Since you are attacking, can you give us a question?"
Also, Acosta is not tame when he disagrees with the White House. In June, for example, he hit the administration's decision to ban video recordings of the briefings. "This is not campaign event," Acosta tweeted. "This is the WH. We are sitting in a briefing room full of cameras and taxpayer funded spokesman at podium."
As for Miller, he comes across like the young, squeaky-clean and overly ambitious Pete Campbell of AMC's "Mad Men" series.
The optics are rarely in favor of the smug. Privileged is not the best look when you are advocating for a point system that would favor immigrants with work and English-language skills and thus halve the number of green cards issued annually.
Acosta, whose father immigrated from Cuba, accosted Miller for pushing a plan that "does not sound like it's in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration."
Then Acosta quoted the Emma Lazarus poem that includes the phrase, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." And he added, "It doesn't say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer."
"Jim, I appreciate your speech," Miller responded, "so let's talk about this." The 31-year-old White House aide had his facts in a row. He peppered Acosta with questions. "In 1970, when we let in 300,000 people a year, was that violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land? In the 1990s, when it was half-a-million a year, was it violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty law of the land?" The RAISE Act would reduce green cards — but the government still would issue some half a million annually.
Acosta dodged the questions as he accused Miller of "bringing a 'press one for English' approach to the issue. Acosta had a trump card, too — when he talked about his father who came from Cuba. "My father came to this country not speaking any English," Acosta told Miller. Point Acosta.
The Trump base considered the exchange a clear win for the White House. Miller had facts on his side; Acosta seemed to confuse a poem with immigration law. National Review editor Rich Lowry observed, "advocates of high levels of immigration are often the ones who — despite their self-image as the rational bulwark against runaway populism — rely on an ignorant emotionalism to make their case."
Acosta came out ahead, too. Once again, he's the journalist who stood up to the White House. Wherever he goes, fans will ask to take selfies with him.
While the players clearly have passionate viewpoints, the briefing room is a stage — and everyone in the room knows it.
Hoover Institution senior fellow Bill Whalen has a list of reporter categories useful to the White House Press Secretary — "There are contentious reporters, there are friendly reporters, there are reporters who exist for comic relief and there are those who are comedic foils." Press Secretaries like to call on foils to gin up the base.
Whalen compared Acosta to Sam Donaldson during the Ronald Reagan presidency. The ABC News reporter's questions made the "administration more sympathetic" to Reagan voters, and his shoutouts reminded swaths of the public why they hate the news media.
The public's disenchantment with the news media has only grown. Whalen concluded Miller won the round with Acosta in part because, "The Washington media establishment could not be more full of self-importance and sanctimony."