A federal judge on Friday ordered the Trump administration to restore the press credentials of Jim Acosta of CNN, handing the cable network an early win in its lawsuit against the president and members of his administration.
Presiding over one of the first major tests of press rights under President Trump, Judge Timothy J. Kelly of United States District Court in Washington ruled that the White House had behaved inappropriately in stripping Mr. Acosta of his press badge shortly after a testy exchange at a news conference last week.
The administration’s process for barring the correspondent “is still so shrouded in mystery that the government could not tell me” who made the decision, Judge Kelly said from the bench. Taking away the pass that gave Mr. Acosta access to the White House amounted to a violation of his right to a fair and transparent process, the judge ruled.
Soon after the ruling, Mr. Trump said the White House would tighten its rules for how journalists must comport themselves at the White House.
“People have to behave,” the president said in the Oval Office. “If they don’t listen to the rules and regulations, we’ll end up back in court, and we will win.”
The ruling was a significant victory for CNN and Mr. Acosta, but Judge Kelly declined to say whether the denial of the White House press pass had amounted to a First Amendment issue.
“I want to emphasize the very limited nature of this ruling,” he said, saying that it was not meant to enshrine journalists’ right to access. “I have not determined that the First Amendment was violated here.”
The legal battle is expected to continue: Judge Kelly ruled only on the network’s emergency request for a temporary restoration of Mr. Acosta’s credentials. Hearings on other issues in the case are expected to resume next week.
Some lawyers said that, CNN’s initial victory aside, journalists who cover the president had to remain vigilant. The case underscored that the entree granted to the White House press corps, which has worked out of the West Wing for decades, relies on custom rather than any legal framework.
“This could backfire,” said William L. Youmans, a professor of media law at George Washington University. Mr. Acosta “gets his credential now, but it empowers the Trump administration to come up with conduct-based criteria.”
“A ‘rudeness’ or ‘aggressive behavior’ policy would have a huge chilling effect, and would be much more damaging to the whole system,” Dr. Youmans added. “If it lowers the bar for pulling credentials, it’s a recipe for a more tepid press.”
In arguing for the return of Mr. Acosta’s credentials, CNN cited a case from the 1970s that required the White House to demonstrate a clear process, and right of appeal, before revoking a reporter’s credentials.
In addition to saying the White House had failed to explain its process in revoking the press badge, Judge Kelly criticized the administration for its false claim that Mr. Acosta had placed his hands on a White House intern during the news conference. The judge called it “likely untrue and at least partly based on evidence of questionable accuracy.”
After the ruling, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said her team planned to “develop rules and processes to ensure fair and orderly press conferences in the future.”
“There must be decorum at the White House,” she added.
Given Mr. Trump’s penchant for insulting journalists — he recently denounced questions as “stupid” and “racist” and joked about a Montana lawmaker who body-slammed a reporter — the use of “decorum” drew snickers from journalists on Twitter. But lawyers took it more seriously.
“This ruling is not saying that what Acosta did was the right thing or the wrong thing,” said Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and a Harvard Law School professor. “The judge ruled that the president can’t revoke his credentials without due process: a statement of what he did wrong, an opportunity to respond, a final decision. The ruling leaves those issues and his First Amendment challenge for another day.”
During the hearing, Judge Kelly appeared to agree with the argument put forth by the administration’s lawyers that the First Amendment did not guarantee a right to enter the White House campus.
“I have no quarrel with that,” the judge said, adding that the president “might not call on Mr. Acosta ever again.”
The case, CNN v. Donald J. Trump, has come to symbolize the dysfunctional dynamic between the White House press corps and a president who denigrates its work as “fake news.”
No president has relished being scrutinized by the news media, and administrations have long relied on subtle and not-so-subtle methods to ice out reporters they considered troublesome — for instance, ignoring their questions at briefings or giving scoops to their competitors.
But supporters of CNN, including news organizations like The Associated Press, Fox News and The New York Times, said stripping a correspondent’s credentials entered the realm of retaliation and posed a threat to basic press freedoms.
For Mr. Trump and his supporters, penalizing Mr. Acosta was a sure crowd-pleaser.
The president’s political team released a fund-raising email pointing to CNN’s lawsuit as evidence that the news media is intent on hurting the administration. White House allies like Sean Hannity denounced Mr. Acosta as a biased grandstander.
Formal White House access for journalists dates roughly to the administration of Woodrow Wilson, the first president to hold regular news conferences, and reporters have worked out of cramped quarters in the West Wing since the Nixon era.
Credentials are particularly important for network correspondents, who stand before cameras in an area known as Pebble Beach, which offers a picturesque view of the North Lawn and the White House portico.
Mr. Acosta, 47, rose to prominence in large part because of his jousting with Mr. Trump, who at times has refused to call on the correspondent and once called him “a real beauty.” The son of a Cuban refugee, Mr. Acosta was raised near Washington and has worked in broadcast news since college.
He is not the first reporter to earn a president’s animus. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt handed out a Nazi Iron Cross at a news conference and asked that it be bestowed on one of his least loved chroniclers, a columnist at The Daily News of New York.
In the Oval Office on Friday, Mr. Trump told reporters that any new regulations for press access would focus on “decorum,” though he kept the definition vague.
“You have to act with respect,” the president said. “You’re at the White House, and when I see the way some of my people get treated at press conferences, it’s terrible.”
Mr. Trump suggested that he might cut back on his public appearances if White House correspondents failed to follow the rules. “We’ll just leave, and then you won’t be very happy, because we do get good ratings,” he said.
As for Mr. Acosta’s getting his badge back, the president tried to show nonchalance.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said in an interview with the “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace. “And if he misbehaves, we’ll throw him out.”
CNN Sues Trump Administration for Barring Jim Acosta From White House
Trump Threatens to Retaliate Against Reporters Who Don’t Show ‘Respect’
Trump Administration Uses Misleading Video to Justify Barring of CNN’s Jim Acosta
‘You Are a Rude, Terrible Person’: After Midterms, Trump Renews His Attacks on the Press