Trump amps up threats on press

He sug­gests tar­get­ing broad­cast­ing li­censes

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID NAKA­MURA

Pres­i­dent Trump on Wednesday lashed out over a crit­i­cal news re­port and es­ca­lated his pre­vi­ous at­tacks on the me­dia by sug­gest­ing that news or­ga­ni­za­tions he dis­agrees with be shut down, alarm­ing free-speech ad­vo­cates who com­pared the tac­tics to in­tim­i­da­tion ef­forts by the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The pres­i­dent’s out­bursts, which marred an Oval Of­fice meet­ing with Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, came in re­ac­tion to an NBC News re­port that he had pushed se­nior aides in July for a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of the U.S. nu­clear ar­se­nal. The pres­i­dent’s re­quest re­port­edly prompted Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son to re­fer to Trump as a “mo­ron” after the meet­ing at the Pen­tagon.

On Twit­ter, Trump called the re­port “pure fic­tion made up to de­mean” him and ques­tioned whether net­works that re­port “Fake News” should be stripped of their broad­cast­ing li­censes — al­though the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion li­censes in­di­vid­ual sta­tions and af­fil­i­ates, not net­works.

“Bad for the coun­try!” Trump wrote.

Later, in re­sponse to ques­tions from re­porters in the Oval Of­fice, Trump de­nied ex­press­ing a de­sire for more nu­clear weapons and again crit­i­cized NBC.

“It’s frankly dis­gust­ing the way the press is able to write what­ever they want to write,” Trump said. “And peo­ple should look into it.”

Trump said he was not call­ing for lim­its to be im­posed on the me­dia, but he said that “the press should speak more hon­estly.”

“I mean, I’ve seen tremen­dously dis­hon­est press,” he said. “It’s not even a ques­tion of dis­tor­tion. . . . And then they have their sources that don’t ex­ist.”

But Wednesday night, Trump re­it­er­ated his call for pos­si­bly chal­leng­ing net­works’ li­censes over their news cov­er­age.

“Net­work news has be­come so par­ti­san, dis­torted and fake that li­censes must be chal­lenged and, if ap­pro­pri­ate, re­voked. Not fair to pub­lic!” he said in a mes­sage on Twit­ter.

Trump’s di­a­tribe marked the lat­est at­tack against the news me­dia by a pres­i­dent who, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple close to him, has felt in­creas­ingly frus­trated over his stalled leg­isla­tive agenda and po­lit­i­cal trou­bles. While Trump has long at­tacked news cov­er­age of his ad­min­is­tra­tion as un­fair, his lat- est mis­sives have mor­phed into vague threats of gov­ern­ment ac­tion at his per­ceived ad­ver­saries.

Last week, an­gered by the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions into his cam­paign’s ties to Rus­sia, Trump sug­gested that the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gate news out­lets over “fake news.” Over the week­end, he ex­pressed dis­dain at late-night tele­vi­sion hosts over their “anti-Trump” ma­te­rial and pro­posed bringing back the Fair­ness Doc­trine, a rule phased out in 1987 that had re­quired broad­cast­ers to pro­vide “equal time” for di­ver­gent po­lit­i­cal views on cer­tain is­sues.

First Amend­ment ad­vo­cates roundly con­demned the pres­i­dent over his re­marks, call­ing them an as­sault on the Con­sti­tu­tion.

“I think it’s dan­ger­ous and has a chill­ing ef­fect,” said Michael Copps, who served as chair­man of the FCC in 2009 un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. “I worry not just about some­body like NBC, which has a lot of re­sources to de­fend them­selves, but es­pe­cially about small, in­de­pen­dent broad­cast­ers who ex­press opin­ions but do not have re­sources to do bat­tle with the pres­i­dent.”

Le­gal ex­perts called the pres­i­dent’s threat against NBC empty, not­ing that the FCC does not grant li­censes to net­works. Fur­ther­more, they said, it is rare for in­di­vid­ual sta­tions’ li­censes to be stripped over po­lit­i­cal con­cerns or for other rea­sons.

“Not how it works,” Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel, a mem­ber of the FCC, wrote on Twit­ter in re­sponse to Trump, link­ing to an FCC re­port on how sta­tions are reg­u­lated.

“Ob­vi­ously, when a pub­lic of­fi­cial, much less the pres­i­dent, threat­ens me­dia out­lets with any kind of le­gal pro­ceed­ings, it is a cause for grave con­cern as a First Amend­ment mat­ter,” said An­drew Schwartz­man, a me­dia law spe­cial­ist at the Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Law Cen­ter. “But as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter there is no pos­si­ble le­gal jeop­ardy for Com­cast tele­vi­sion li­censes.” Com­cast, the ca­ble gi­ant, owns NBC.

Schwartz­man noted the his­tor­i­cal prece­dent, when al­lies to Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon chal­lenged in­di­vid­ual li­censes of tele­vi­sion sta­tions owned by The Washington Post Co. in 1973 dur­ing The Post’s on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Water­gate scan­dal.

Those chal­lenges were base­less and were un­suc­cess­ful, Schwartz­man said.

“The Post was never un­der se­ri­ous le­gal threat,” he said, adding that Trump “is ig­no­rant over de­tails like what the law ac­tu­ally re­quires or per­mits.”

NBC re­ported that Trump’s re­ac­tion over the nu­clear stock­pile came after se­nior ad­vis­ers showed him in­for­ma­tion chart­ing its steady de­cline in num­bers since the 1960s dur­ing the meet­ing at the Pen­tagon in July. Trump then ex­pressed a de­sire to ex­pand the ar­se­nal by up to 10 times its cur­rent size, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Trump is pre­par­ing for an 11day trip next month to five Asian na­tions, dur­ing which he will seek to bol­ster in­ter­na­tional sup­port to pres­sure North Korea to curb its nu­clear weapons and bal­lis­ticmis­sile test­ing. Dur­ing a speech at the United Na­tions last month, Trump said the United States was pre­pared to “to­tally de­stroy” the North if nec­es­sary, and he de­ri­sively re­ferred to dic­ta­tor Kim Jong Un as the “Rocket Man.” North Korea re­sponded that Trump’s threats amounted to a dec­la­ra­tion of war.

Tiller­son said dur­ing a visit to Bei­jing two weeks ago that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was “prob­ing” for chan­nels of di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Py­ongyang to ratchet down ten­sions. But Trump quickly un­der­cut the na­tion’s top diplo­mat, say­ing on Twit­ter that it was a waste of time.

“Re­cent re­ports that the Pres­i­dent called for an in­crease in the U.S. nu­clear ar­se­nal are ab­so­lutely false,” De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis said in a state­ment. “This kind of er­ro­neous re­port­ing is ir­re­spon­si­ble.”

In the Oval Of­fice, Trump said of the nu­clear ar­se­nal: “We won’t need an in­crease, but I want mod­ern­iza­tion and I want to­tal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. It’s got to be in tip­top shape.” He said a ten­fold in­crease in the stock­pile is “to­tally un­nec­es­sary, be­lieve me. Be­cause I know what we have right now.”

NBC did not for­mally re­spond to Trump’s at­tacks on the net­work. Court­ney Kube, a national se­cu­rity re­porter for the net­work, wrote on Twit­ter: “NBC News didn’t re­port Trump ‘called for’ more nucs. On the con­trary, we re­ported Trump said he wanted more but no one took it as an or­der.”

Last week, after Trump sug­gested the Se­nate com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gate news or­ga­ni­za­tions, White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders de­fended the pres­i­dent, call­ing him “an in­cred­i­ble ad­vo­cate of the First Amend­ment.”

Re­porters, she said, “have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to tell the truth, to be ac­cu­rate,” and she cited a study from Pew Re­search Cen­ter that found 5 per­cent of news sto­ries about Trump in his first 60 days in of­fice were pos­i­tive.

San­ders ac­cused re­porters of be­ing con­sumed by “petty palace in­trigue” — sto­ries about per­son­nel moves and in­ter­nal West Wing squab­bles — in­stead of fo­cus­ing on im­prove­ments in the econ­omy and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cam­paign against ter­ror­ist groups.

Trump, for his part, has been con­sumed by the neg­a­tive cov­er­age and has railed against CNN, the New York Times, The Washington Post and other out­lets for months. In July, he tweeted a doc­tored video clip of him in a WWE wrestling match from years ago tack­ling a fig­ure with a CNN logo su­per­im­posed on the head.

In re­cent weeks, Trump has at­tacked ESPN over crit­i­cism of him by an an­chor — sug­gest­ing the net­work apol­o­gize to him and blam­ing her in a tweet Tues­day for con­tribut­ing to the sports net­work’s de­clin­ing rat­ings and sub­scrip­tion base.

Last month, when the an­chor, Jemele Hill, re­ferred to Trump as a “white su­prem­a­cist,” San­ders called it a “fire­able of­fense.”

Ben Wizner, direc­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union’s Speech, Pri­vacy, and Tech­nol­ogy Pro­ject, said Trump’s at­tacks risk “out­rage fa­tigue.” But, he added, “a call to chal­lenge the li­censes of news or­ga­ni­za­tions for do­ing their jobs is gen­uinely shock­ing. This is the lan­guage of an au­to­crat, not the elected leader of a democ­racy.”

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