Death Threats and Lawsuits: Playboy's Brian Karem Opens Up About Covering the Trump White House

Brian Karem
Playboy reporter Brian Karem frequently spars with the White House, and his latest tussle with the Trump administration embroiled him in a federal lawsuit that appears to be going in his favor. Brian Karem

When he ruled against the Trump administration last week reinstating Playboy reporter Brian Karem's White House press pass, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras made sure to note that lawyers defending the administration "submitted no evidence in support" of one of their central claims.

At one point, a smoking-gun letter—allegedly containing a Secret Service agent's written statement that would have damned the conduct that had embroiled Karem in a federal lawsuit regarding his press pass—was revealed to have been a fabrication.

On this legal defense, devised by the Justice Department on behalf of the White House, sought to bar Karem from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and prevent him from doing his job as Playboy's senior White House correspondent.

The now-infamous altercation between Karem and former Trump aide and provocateur Sebastian Gorka at a July Rose Garden ceremony—which included, ironically, social media personalities aggrieved about the alleged censorship of their own commentary—ended in a tense exchange of words.

For three weeks following the incident, the White House was mum. Then, newly appointed Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham intervened.

"There was no notice. As I was getting on the metro at 4:55 p.m. one Friday, I was informed of the suspension of my press pass," Karem told Newsweek in an interview. "That was their intent from the outset, it was a kangaroo court. You're guilty first, and then you have to explain why you shouldn't be. It was frightening to me on many levels."

The removal of Karem's White House credentials, known to reporters as a "hard pass," marks just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to challenge institutions governed by the First Amendment.

In fact, it's often hard for reporters covering Trump to disentangle the reasons or motivations for sanctions against the press. In a building widely marked by reports of chaos and fractiousness, in which the prospect of loyalty pledges mars the appearance of pure public service, many reporters have little confidence in the authenticity of the information they're given on a daily basis. Their skepticism is deepened when the information they're given takes the form of diatribes against the "Fake News" media.

When Grisham stepped into the shoes of former Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was notorious for demolishing the White House press briefing, it wasn't immediately apparent whether her approach to the job would mirror that of her predecessor. Under Sanders' tenure late last year, after a blistering exchange with Trump, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta saw his hard pass revoked and then reinstated by a federal judge.

And now with the Karem incident, this process is becoming something of a press intimidation pas de deux. More importantly, perhaps, it solidified Grisham's place as a staunch Trump defender in the same mold as her position's former occupants.

President Trump Holds News Conference In Rose Garden On Census And Citzenship
Brian Karem of Playboy Magazine (2nd R) argues with conservative military and intelligence analyst and former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump Sebastian Gorka (R) after the President made a Rose Garden statement on the census July 11, 2019 at the White House in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty

"Based on the record, this is part of an overall effort to thwart the White House press corps, and President Trump is the one calling the shots," First Amendment attorney Ted Boutrous, who is representing Karem, told Newsweek. "It's all emanating from President Trump and his overall hostility and disrespect for the First Amendment and journalism. That's what motivated what she did. She was carrying out what she viewed as the desires of the president."

Boutrous, who also represented Acosta during his tussle with the White House communications shop, said that Playboy is "waiting to see what the White House's next move is going to be." The judge's order was not final and would be subordinate to any final ruling. But the victory was notable and highly symbolic for Karem and Boutrous, who see the order as a direct repudiation of the White House's slapdash anti-press rationale. The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it intends to pursue the case further.

Petty fights and forlorn disputes with the White House may come across as trivial, especially when conflicts arise from Sharpie-doctored weather maps or misrepresented crowd sizes. For Karem, however, the follies of covering the White House today are "right up there" with his previous journalistic battles.

"This isn't my first rodeo," he said, joking that "at least I didn't have to go to jail for this one, so that's good." Karem was previously arrested during his TV reporting days in Texas for refusing to reveal the names of sources.

But while this standoff may not have involved jail time, Karem has had to endure a different kind of penalty that has become increasingly familiar to White House reporters amidst current anti-press hostilities.

"In general, I've never had death threats until this president came into office," Karem revealed. "Some of these are not really credible, but there have been some very pointed threats against me where I had to call the police. The worst one was when someone said they were going to stake me to a tree and make me watch while they raped my wife. Some of the death threats against me I've shared with others, but that was the worst of it."

As for the spark that set off the confrontation between Karem and Gorka? It started as little more than a joke that quickly escalated. "This is a group of people eager for demonic possession," Karem joked, which prompted Gorka to lash out at Karem. When Karem replied, Gorka accused Karem of "threatening me in the Rose Garden."

"I just saw him one time in my life," Karem exclaimed "I really didn't even know who he was until someone told me who he was."

While he vowed to press forward despite the unique challenges presented by the administration and its informal coalition of sparring partners—who themselves are often elevated to prominent platforms by the president and his Twitter feed—Karem did note the toll misdirection and disorder has taken on overworked and sleep-deprived correspondents.

"I look at the press corps sometime, and half of us are suffering from PTSD and the other half are suffering from Stockholm syndrome," he said. "That makes it difficult to cover this presidency."

But he maintained that the hostilities of the moment wouldn't cow him from doing his job, nor could White House combativeness match the travails of his previous line of work.

"I coached high school football, so this is nothing new to me," he said. "Try taking your team somewhere for homecoming where everybody hates you. You do your job and you kind of get used to it and just go on about your business."

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Ted Boutrous' name.