A reporter for The Associated Press was grabbed by the shoulders and shoved out of an Environmental Protection Agency building by a security guard Tuesday for trying to cover a meeting on water contaminants in which some reporters were welcomed and others were not.
An aide to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt later called to apologize to AP reporter Ellen Knickmeyer and said the incident is being looked into. Knickmeyer, who said she was not hurt, was later let into the meeting when the EPA reversed course and opened it to all reporters.
Representatives from CNN and E&E News, which covers energy and environment issues, were also initially barred from the meeting.
Even for an administration with a contentious relationship with the press and a president who has put the phrase "fake news" into the lexicon, Tuesday's events were unusual.
Pruitt had convened what he called a national summit on dangerous chemicals that have been found in some water systems. Some 200 people attended, including representatives of states, tribes and the chemical industry and environmentalists.
Pruitt's remarks at the meeting were listed on his public schedule and described as being open to the press on a federal daybook of events.
Knickmeyer said she called Monday about the event and was told by EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox that it was invitation-only and there was no room for her. She said she showed up anyway, and was told by a security guard that she couldn't enter. She said she asked to speak to a representative from the press office, was refused and told to get out. Photos of the event showed several empty seats.
After security told her that "we can make you get out," Knickmeyer said she took out her phone to record what was happening. Some of the security guards reached for it, and a woman grabbed her shoulders from behind and pushed her about five feet out the door.
Wilcox issued a statement late Tuesday saying Knickmeyer "pushed through the security entrance." After the AP objected to the characterization, the spokesman issued a second statement removing that account and instead saying Knickmeyer "showed up at EPA but refused to leave the building after being asked to do so."
"When we were made aware of the incident, we displaced stakeholders to the overflow room who flew to Washington for this meeting so that every member of the press could have a seat," Wilcox said.
Reporters from other organizations, including Politico, were allowed in. Inside the event, there were seats reserved for Politico, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, the Daily Caller, the Hill, MLive and NJ Advance Media.
Although Knickmeyer has only recently begun covering the embattled Pruitt and the EPA, the EPA had publicly criticized AP reporter Michael Biesecker for a story he co-wrote noting that the AP had surveyed toxic waste sites in the Houston area flooded by Hurricane Harvey when the EPA had said these sites were inaccessible. The EPA called it "yellow journalism"; the AP objected at the time and said it stood by the reporting.
CNN, a frequent target of criticism by President Donald Trump, said the EPA had not responded to its queries Monday about the meeting. Reporter Rene Marsh, a producer and a photographer showed up to cover the meeting anyway, and when the photographer attempted to enter, Wilcox came to the entrance and provided security with a list of reporters who were allowed. CNN was asked to leave. Marsh later tried to enter through a different entrance and was turned away.
Similarly, reporter Corbin Hiar of E&E News was denied entrance for the morning session.
News organizations decried the ban.
"The Environmental Protection Agency's selective barring of news organizations, including the AP, from covering today's meeting is alarming and a direct threat to the public's right to know about what is happening inside their government," said AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee.
CNN said in a statement that "we understand the importance of an open and free press and we hope the EPA does, too."
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called on Pruitt to apologize. "This intimidation of journalists seeking to cover a federal official presiding over important policy-making is un-American and unacceptable," He said
After the story began spreading, Knickmeyer said she received a call from Lincoln Ferguson, an adviser to Pruitt. He apologized for how she was manhandled and said officials were looking into it.
He invited her and other reporters back for the summit's afternoon session. Ironically, the EPA had initially planned to allow reporters in only for Pruitt's remarks, yet after the access issue was raised, later sessions were opened to the press. CNN and E&E News attended the afternoon session, too.
Lauren Easton, spokeswoman for the AP, said the news organization was pleased that the EPA had reconsidered its position.
Asked about the incident, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration was looking into the incident. She pushed back on a question about whether there are any instances where the White House believed it was appropriate to physically handle a reporter.
"I'm not going to weigh in to random hypotheticals that may or may not exist," she said. "I don't know any information about this specific incident. You're asking me to speak to a blanket possibility, which I'm not going to do."