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VP Pence Argues For Free Press As White House Defends Itself In 1st Amendment Lawsuit

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And today in a Washington, D.C., courtroom the Trump administration was defending itself in a First Amendment lawsuit. CNN and its correspondent Jim Acosta sued the administration to restore Acosta's access to the White House. The White House had revoked his access last week. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence was in Asia arguing for press freedom. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In Singapore for a regional summit, Vice President Mike Pence met with Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. During the polite photo op part of the meeting, with American reporters in the room, Pence made a point of emphasizing the importance of press freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The arrest and jailing of two journalists last fall was deeply troubling to millions of Americans. And I look forward to speaking with you about the premium that we place on a free and independent press.

KEITH: For more than a year, Myanmar has held two Reuters journalists on charges of obtaining state secrets. Senior administration officials told reporters traveling with Pence that, behind closed doors, the vice president pressed Suu Kyi to pardon and release the journalists. The officials said he brought up the matter repeatedly during the meeting and explained that a free press is a key part of what it means to be an open and democratic nation.

This comes in stark contrast to the rhetoric employed by his boss, President Trump, while on foreign soil. There was the press conference in Canada where Trump objected to a question by asking the reporter where he works.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Who are you with, out of curiosity?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: CNN.

TRUMP: I figured - Fake News CNN.

KEITH: And there was also a press conference in England with Prime Minister Theresa May where Trump sparred with CNN's Jim Acosta.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: CNN's fake news. I don't take questions...

JIM ACOSTA: Well, sir...

TRUMP: I don't take questions from CNN.

KEITH: Acosta is the reporter who is now battling Trump in court, trying to get his access to the White House grounds restored. And this very public fight, in addition to the president's regular verbal lashing of journalists, has consequences says Brett Bruen He was a longtime diplomat and worked in President Obama's National Security Council. Bruen says it makes it a lot harder for people like Vice President Mike Pence to make a case about democratic values and the importance of press freedom.

BRETT BRUEN: When our ambassadors, when our Cabinet members go overseas and now try to press countries on some of these fundamental freedoms, what they're hearing is - get your own house in order, and then come back and we'll talk.

KEITH: Bruen says dictators and leaders with authoritarian tendencies have always looked for examples of American hypocrisy, at times digging around for instances of reporters in small towns getting pushed around. But now they don't have to search very hard. These leaders, he says, are parroting language used by President Trump to justify mistreatment of journalists in their own countries.

BRUEN: I know from friends who are serving in embassies overseas that, right now, articulating America's support for a free press is more difficult than it has ever been.

KEITH: But at the Trump White House, they keep trying to bat down the argument that the president is anti-press or doesn't respect the First Amendment. This was counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway last week on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

KELLYANNE CONWAY: President Trump answered 68 questions from 35 different reporters over the span of 90 minutes. That's pro-press. That's transparent. That's accountability.

KEITH: If the past is any guide, this splitscreen will continue. Pence will keep defending press freedom overseas, and President Trump will keep bashing the press at home and abroad. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEPTH AFFECT'S "DANI GUIMAUVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.