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In response to First Amendment lawsuit, White House insists Acosta's recent ban has nothing to do with the content or viewpoint of CNN's reporting
CNN and its chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta have sued President Donald Trump and various administration officials for violating the First Amendment when Acosta was banned from the White House. The lawsuit specifically notes that the president and White House officials have shown animus toward the media in general, and CNN and Acosta in particular. In response, the president’s lawyers have claimed the White House has not demonstrated the type of content and viewpoint discrimination that is impermissible under the First Amendment. The evidence indicates otherwise.
Throughout the first year of his presidency, Trump and his administration attacked various media outlets and journalists more than 400 times, specifically targeting CNN verbally and on Twitter dozens of times. The attacks on the media didn’t let up in 2018. These facts and the 42 examples of the Trump administration’s attacks on Acosta and CNN gathered below support the network's complaint that the Trump administration took action against Acosta and CNN for the “contents of their reporting”:
Trump: “Jim Acosta is a very unprofessional man. … I don’t think he’s a smart person.” [Faceba.se, 11/9/18]
Trump: “So funny to see the CNN Fake Suppression Polls and false rhetoric.” [Twitter, 11/5/18]
Trump: “CNN and others in the Fake News Business keep purposely and inaccurately reporting that I said the ‘Media is the Enemy of the People.’ Wrong!” [Twitter, 10/29/18]
Trump: “Facebook has just stated that they are setting up a system to ‘purge’ themselves of Fake News. Does that mean CNN will finally be put out of business?” [Twitter, 10/21/18]
Press secretary Sarah Sanders: “Can’t imagine why @CNN has such low ratings when during the day they break from live coverage to show reruns.” [Twitter, 9/4/18]
Trump: “CNN is working frantically to find their ‘source.’ Look hard because it doesn’t exist. Whatever was left of CNN’s credibility is now gone!” [Twitter, 8/30/18]
Trump: “The hatred and extreme bias of me by @CNN has clouded their thinking and made them unable to function. But actually, as I have always said, this has been going on for a long time. Little Jeff Z has done a terrible job, his ratings suck, & AT&T should fire him to save credibility!” [Twitter, 8/30/18]
Trump: “CNN is being torn apart from within based on their being caught in a major lie and refusing to admit the mistake.” [Twitter, 8/29/18]
Trump: “Look at the lie that Fake CNN is now in. They got caught red handed! Enemy of the People!” [Twitter, 8/29/18]
Trump: “If you are weeding out Fake News, there is nothing so Fake as CNN & MSNBC, & yet I do not ask that their sick behavior be removed.” [Twitter, 8/18/18]
Sanders on the White House canceling national security advisor John Bolton’s interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper: “Actually a @CNN reporter disrespected @POTUS & PM May during their press conf. Instead of rewarding bad behavior, we decided to reprioritize the TV appearances for administration officials.” [Twitter, 7/14/18]
Trump: “So funny! I just checked out Fake News CNN, for the first time in a long time (they are dying in the ratings), to see if they covered my takedown yesterday of Jim Acosta (actually a nice guy). They didn’t! But they did say I already lost in my meeting with Putin. Fake News.” [Twitter, 7/14/18]
Trump: “Real @FoxNews is doing great, Fake News CNN is dead!” [Twitter, 6/2/18]
Trump: “The Washington Post and CNN have typically written false stories about our trade negotiations with China.” [Twitter, 5/16/18]
Trump: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “is a lying machine who now works for Fake News CNN.” [Twitter, 4/28/18]
Trump: “Check out the fact that you can’t get a job at ratings challenged @CNN unless you state that you are totally anti-Trump? Little Jeff Zuker, whose job is in jeopardy, is not having much fun lately. They should clean up and strengthen CNN and get back to honest reporting!” [Twitter, 4/3/18]
Trump: “The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!” [Twitter, 4/3/18]
Trump: “Bad ratings @CNN & @MSNBC got scammed when they covered the anti-Trump Russia rally wall-to-wall. They probably knew it was Fake News but, because it was a rally against me, they pushed it hard anyway. Two really dishonest newscasters, but the public is wise!” [Twitter, 2/20/18]
Trump: “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller of the Trump Administration. Watch the hatred and unfairness of this CNN flunky!” [Twitter, 1/17/18]
Acosta: Sanders “issued a warning to me. She said if I asked a question of Trump at the bill signing ‘I can't promise you will be allowed into a pool spray again.’ Sorry Sarah.. we won't be intimidated.” [Twitter, 12/12/17]
Trump: “I seldom, if ever, watch CNN or MSNBC, both of which I consider Fake News.I never watch [CNN’s] Don Lemon, who I once called the ‘dumbest man on television!’ Bad Reporting.” [Twitter, 12/11/17]
Trump: “CNN’S slogan is CNN, THE MOST TRUSTED NAME IN NEWS. Everyone knows this is not true, that this could, in fact, be a fraud on the American Public.” [Twitter, 12/9/17]
Sanders on news that CNN will boycott a White House Christmas function: “Christmas comes early! Finally, good news from @CNN.” Trump quote-tweeted her, adding: “We should boycott Fake News CNN. Dealing with them is a total waste of time!” [Twitter, 11/28/17, 11/29/17]
Trump: “We should have a contest as to which of the Networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me). They are all bad. Winner to receive the FAKE NEWS TROPHY!” [Twitter, 11/27/17]
Trump: “CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!” [Twitter, 11/25/17]
Trump: “While in the Philippines I was forced to watch @CNN, which I have not done in months, and again realized how bad, and FAKE, it is. Loser!” [Twitter, 11/15/17]
Trump: “People are just now starting to find out how dishonest and disgusting (FakeNews) @NBCNews is. Viewers beware. May be worse than even @CNN!” [Twitter, 10/12/17]
Trump: “NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!” [Twitter, 10/4/17]
Trump: “Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a ‘tenfold’ increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!” [Twitter, 10/11/17]
White House staffer Dan Scavino: Acosta “loves to seek attention & make the news all about himself.” [Twitter, 9/15/17]
Trump to Acosta: “I like real news, not fake news. You’re fake news.” [Fox News, Shepard Smith Reporting, 8/14/17]
Then-Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka: Acosta is a “grandstanding” reporter. [The Daily Caller, 8/3/17]
Trump adviser Stephen Miller during a press briefing: “Jim, that is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant, and foolish things you've ever said. … It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.” [Media Matters, 8/2/17; Politico, 8/2/17]
Trump: “I am thinking about changing the name #FakeNews CNN to #FraudNewsCNN!” [Twitter, 7/1/17]
Trump: “I am extremely pleased to see that @CNN has finally been exposed as #FakeNews and garbage journalism. It's about time!” [Twitter, 7/1/17]
Then-press secretary Sean Spicer about Acosta: “I think some of these reporters are more interested in their YouTube clips than they are in getting factual news.” [Fox News, MediaBuzz, 6/25/17]
Trump: “FAKE NEWS media knowingly doesn't tell the truth. A great danger to our country. The failing @nytimes has become a joke. Likewise @CNN. Sad!” [Twitter, 2/24/17]
Trump: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” [Twitter, 2/17/17]
Trump to Acosta: “Your ratings aren’t as good as some of the other people that are waiting.” [WhiteHouse.gov, 2/16/17]
Trump to Acosta: "I sort of understand there's a certain bias" at CNN. [WhiteHouse.gov, 2/16/17]
Trump: “I watch CNN — it’s so much anger and hatred and just the hatred.” [WhiteHouse.gov, 2/16/17]
And the president needs a weakened press to pull off his cons
Democrats won the House of Representatives on Tuesday, gaining control of key levers of power they say they will use to hold President Donald Trump and his administration accountable. Anyone who thought such a crushing defeat might lead to a change in presidential behavior was quickly disabused of that notion.
Instead, Trump made clear that his plan for the next two years revolves around maintaining an alternate reality. He will continue to depend on the support of compliant members of the right-wing media, while using the traditional press as a foil in order to diminish their ability to spotlight his lies.
Trump offered up his own twisted interpretation of “bipartisanship” at a threat-laden press conference Wednesday morning, telling Democrats that if they sacrifice their constitutional duty to conduct investigations into his deeply corrupt administration, he would be willing to consider their policy ideas. If they don’t, he said, the deal is off, “government comes to a halt,” and he will blame them.
Trump lashed out at journalists throughout the press conference. After one such combative exchange with CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, a White House intern tried to take the microphone from Acosta, who refused to relinquish it. He came into contact with her, then apologized. The president castigated Acosta as “a rude, terrible person,” later adding that he is “the enemy of the people” because CNN reports “fake news.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders subsequently pulled Acosta’s press credentials, circulating a video clip of the incident to falsely accuse him of “placing his hands on” the intern. (There’s an ongoing debate over what sort of edits were made to the video, generated by a staffer with the conspiracy theory website InfoWars, but either way, the charge is nonsense).
Soon after the conference ended, Trump finally took the advice from his Fox News cabinet and forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. He announced as the new acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff and a Trump loyalist whom the president reportedly considered “his eyes and ears” at the Justice Department. Whitaker has the background you’d expect given that Trump believes the job of the attorney general is to protect the president and persecute his enemies. Before joining the administration, he led a right-wing nonprofit group that called for federal investigations into various Democrats, particularly Hillary Clinton, and was a frequent critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which the administration now says he will oversee.
Trump’s worst traits -- thuggish, vindictive, authoritarian, mendacious, nakedly transactional -- were all on stark display yesterday. And pulled from the disparate realms of legislative affairs, media relations, and presidential appointments, these three cases share a common element: They put on display the White House’s constant smoke screen of brazen lies and bottomless bad faith.
Every other president has managed to simultaneously negotiate with Congress while submitting to its oversight authority, and Trump’s lack of interest in policy coupled with the intransigence of Senate Republicans makes his offer of cooperation an obvious ploy. Punishing a reporter based on bogus claims that defy clear video evidence is an abuse of power. And the new acting attorney general has been hand-picked to obstruct Mueller’s probe and, perhaps, usher in the political prosecutions the president so desperately wants -- and Whitaker may not even have the legal authority to exercise those powers at all.
Trump and his ilk depend on a right-wing propaganda apparatus that is willing to support their alternative reality narratives. They are sustained by the unwillingness or inability of reporters at traditional news outlets to explain to their audiences just how radical and deceptive the administration really is.
On the first day of the Trump administration, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer effectively announced that the president was at war with the truth. In a bitter harangue, Spicer declared that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period -- both in person and around the globe,” and blasted journalists for reporting otherwise.
Spicer’s rant was a signal that the unending lies that characterized Trump’s campaign would continue -- and with them, the attacks on the press that those lies require in order to undermine a key source of contrary information.
The daily criticism of journalists emanating from the White House is not a sideshow, but a key facet of Trumpism, one necessary for its success -- while it may distract, it is far more than a mere distraction. The combination of unending lies and delegitimization of the press result in a Republican base convinced that Trump is the best source of information on himself and a broader public confused about whom to believe. From there his power flows.
Trump needs a weakened press to pull off his cons. He would like nothing better than to spend the next few years battering House Democrats for daring to provide oversight of his grifter administration, offering up lies about the great things they could have done together for the American people. He would love to prop up Whitaker as an independent pick. If journalists don’t vigorously scrutinize his lies, he wins; if they do, he will cry “fake news.” Meanwhile, the right-wing partisans at Fox News and elsewhere will have his back.
The spiral is continuing, and it’s only going to get more dangerous in the days to come.
To hear them tell it, Republican congressional candidates aren’t only running against their Democratic opponents. They are also waging political combat against the nation’s journalists.
More than 20 GOP campaigns have criticized the press in roughly 50 emails to their lists over the past 10 weeks, at times adopting President Donald Trump’s “fake news” terminology and calling out particular outlets for their purportedly biased coverage.
The emails come from the campaigns of sitting U.S. senators and representatives, as well as from candidates running in closely watched races against Democratic incumbents and for open seats.
Republican leaders have blasted the press as biased for over half a century, more recently encouraging their voters to eschew mainstream reporting in favor of avowedly right-wing outlets like Fox News. Trump built on their effort with a deliberate, systematic campaign to dehumanize and denigrate journalists. His goal is to shield himself from negative coverage by convincing his base that he is the only trustworthy source for information about his administration.
With Trump successfully reshaping the Republican Party in his image, his anti-media animus is trickling down to Republican candidates across the country. While none of them have adopted the president’s Stalinist descriptor of journalists as the “enemy of the people,” many are seeking donations and other support by raising the spectre of an unfair “fake news” press. The campaigns are trying to take advantage of the way Trump has primed the GOP base to respond to attacks on journalists.
The campaign of Nevada Sen. Dean Heller leads the pack with 12 separate emails attacking the press. Six missives cited the need for more donations in order to “fight” the “fake news.” A September email signed by Heller’s finance director said that the campaign needed funds to “push back on the spin from Washington Democrats and their allies in the media.” Emails addressed from Heller himself claimed that he is the victim of “outrageous media bias and attacks” and asked for contributions to “cut through my opponents' advertising barrage and the liberal media filter.”
Heller isn’t the only sitting senator up for re-election who has criticized the press in emails to his list. The campaign of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) sent a fundraising email signed by Trump highlighting “Fake news” and another from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claiming that Democrats have a “partnership with the anti-Trump media.”
Several Republican Senate candidates in targeted races are using the same talking points.
Rep. Martha McSally, who is running for an open seat in Arizona, wrote in an October 15 email that she needed to raise money because she had been “off the debate stage less than 30 minutes, and liberals and their fake news allies are already twisting my words into complete lies.”
State Sen. Leah Vukmir, who is running against Sen. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, argued, “Study after study has proven the bias of the mainstream media -- they’re in it for the left and the establishment -- and they’re not planning on changing anytime soon.” She also asked the recipients to sign her team’s “official REJECT FAKE NEWS petition.”
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley sent an email arguing that his opponent incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill “and the liberal media have lost their minds” and sent another pointing to an instance in which he claimed The New York Times demonstrated “clear liberal bias” to support her.
Massachusetts state representative Geoff Diehl has criticized the “‘Fake News’ propaganda” for not holding his opponent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, accountable “for what she’s said and done.”
And Indiana businessman Mike Braun’s campaign to unseat Sen. Joe Donnelly has sent two emails signed by Trump targeting the “Fake News Media” and another from Braun’s campaign manager alleging that the “radical liberal media is more than eager to report #fakenews.”
The campaign of Rep. Jason Lewis (R-MN), a former talk radio host, has been the leading offender on the House side, sending five emails attacking the press since the summer. In an email signed by Lewis himself, the congressman’s campaign asserted that “the far-left media will broadcast everything” that his opponent, Democrat Angie Craig, “says, no matter what.” In another, Lewis’ campaign manager wrote,“The liberal media is doing everything they can to suppress all the good things that President Trump and Jason are accomplishing in Washington.”
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been waging a public war against journalists in his district, using an online ad and a “38-page glossy mini-magazine” to condemn the Fresno Bee newspaper as a “propaganda machine” that “has worked closely with radical left-wing groups.” In emails to his campaign list, he accused the “biased, far-left media” and the Democrats of using “personal attacks to intimidate me,” claimed that “the radical Left and their media echo chamber attack” him daily, and asked for contributions to help “cut through the nasty attacks and vicious lies of the liberal mainstream media.”
Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana, best known for body-slamming a reporter during his last campaign and then lying about it, has sought a “great grassroots conservative funding effort” because “the liberal mainstream media are crowing” about his Democratic opponent’s fundraising tally.
Other Republicans to lash out at the press in emails to their campaign lists include Reps. Andy Biggs (AZ), Claudia Tenney (NY), Don Bacon (NE) Jackie Walorski (IN), Lloyd Smucker (PA), Markwayne Mullin (OK), and Ron Estes (KS); as well as House candidates Casper Stockham (CO), Charlotte Bergmann (TN), Marty Nothstein (PA), and Seth Grossman (NJ).
Shelby Jamerson contributed research to this article.
It would have been too much to expect President Donald Trump to rise to the occasion after someone sent bombs to the homes of several Democratic politicians and CNN’s New York offices this week. Trump has spent his life casually and cruelly denigrating anyone who challenges him, and it was implausible to think he would draw a line between his vitriol and the apparent assassination attempts against some of his targets and vow to mend his ways. But even by the unconscionably low standards typically applied to the president, he has failed miserably.
Authorities have reported that pipe bombs in manilla envelopes were recently sent to prominent progressives across the country. Law enforcement has yet to identify the culprit or their motivation. But there is a clear pattern in the list of targets -- from President Barack Obama to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to progressive donor George Soros to the actor Robert De Niro, all are frequent subjects of incendiary attacks from Trump and the right wing.
In scripted remarks Wednesday afternoon, Trump called for unity in the face of the attempted bombings, saying, “We have to come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.” Trump’s own past rhetoric -- his denunciations of journalists as “the enemy of the people,” demonization of his political foes as “evil,” and vitriolic attacks on Clinton that inspire chants of “lock her up” on the campaign trail -- made such paeans to a kinder politics meaningless.
But Trump would soon move from calls for civility to a naked attempt to exploit the attempted bombings. By Wednesday night, he was pairing his promises to bring those responsible to justice with new attacks on the real culprits: the press. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” he said at a rally in Wisconsin. “Have to do it," he added. He reiterated that argument on Twitter Thursday morning, blaming the “Fake News” media for “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society”:
A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2018
Donald Trump asking for the revitalization of a “civil tone” and criticizing “hateful” rhetoric does not pass the laugh test. And lashing out at the press the day after CNN evacuated its New York studio after receiving an explosive device is despicable.
But the real giveaway for the president’s aim is the way he lumps together criticism of the media’s “tone” with what he terms “purposely false and inaccurate reporting.” This is not general media criticism; when the president criticizes journalists for producing “negative” and “false” stories, he is very specifically referring to coverage of him. For Trump, true reporting is the kind that makes him look good; anything that doesn’t is “fake news.”
For years, the president has engaged in a campaign to delegitimize the press. As part of that effort, he demeans journalists as the “enemy of the people” and baselessly accuses them of deliberately concocting false stories to politically damage him. Trump is trying to convince his supporters that he is the only accurate source for information about his administration, thus raising questions in the minds of voters about whether they can trust negative reporting.
Trump is now trying to use a campaign of assassination against his political opponents to further that argument that journalists can’t be trusted.
CNN’s reporters spent Wednesday afternoon trying to do their jobs from the New York City streets after a bomb was sent to their office. The president’s position is that this is their own fault, and that if they and their colleagues had been nicer to him, none of this would have happened.
“There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media,” CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker said in a statement yesterday. “The President, and especially the White House Press Secretary, should understand their words matter. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.”
Zucker is wrong. The president has been warned time and again that his inflammatory attacks on journalists could one day result in a body count. His war on the press has continued as people echoing his rhetoric have been arrested for threatening to murder journalists. It has gone unabated -- indeed, it escalated in disturbing ways -- as a Republican congressman pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter. He has not stopped after a U.S. resident journalist was murdered by the Saudi government for critical coverage of that regime. And now a bomb is sent to CNN, and for Trump, it’s the press’s fault.
Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. At best, he doesn’t care about the potentially dire consequences of his actions. At worst, he’s getting what he wants.
In June, five staffers in the newsroom of the Annapolis, MD, Capital Gazette were murdered by a man with no apparent political motive who had a personal grudge against the paper. In brief remarks from the White House following the attack, President Donald Trump commented, “Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.”
On Thursday night, the president added a caveat to that noble sentiment: Unless the person violently attacking journalists is a Republican.
At a rally in Montana, Trump explicitly praised GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter last year, applauding the Republican congressman and calling him “my guy” before a cheering crowd.
On the eve of a special congressional election last May, Gianforte slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs and began punching him after the journalist attempted to ask him about the House health care bill. Gianforte’s campaign attempted to lie about what happened, but there were witnesses and audio of the incident, so Gianforte ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault two weeks later.
Gianforte’s attack on a reporter actually appeared to bolster his standing in the Republican Party. The conservative movement’s pro-Trump voices rallied to Gianforte in the wake of the attack, his campaign received a surge of donations, and Gianforte won the election and was seated without incident. The message from the GOP was clear: Physically attacking a reporter would not bar a party member from the halls of power.
Last night, the president of the United States went even further, making clear that he believes such crimes should be celebrated.
“Greg is smart, and by the way, never wrestle him,” Trump said, to laughter from the crowd. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my kind of,” he added. The president then mimicked a wrestling move, said, “He’s my guy,” and applauded in Gianforte’s direction as his audience cheered.
Trump went on to describe how, while in Rome for a state visit, he “heard that [Gianforte] body slammed a reporter” -- as he said this, Trump pointed at the journalists covering his speech, while the crowd roared. The president explained that his immediate reaction to the report that a U.S. politician had assaulted a member of the press was “this is terrible, he’s going to lose the election,” before concluding that in Montana, “it might help him, and it did.”
The president had hinted that he supported Gianforte’s attack on a journalist at a rally in September. But these latest remarks cross a new threshold in the president’s rhetoric against the press, with Trump explicitly encouraging violence against journalists.
Trump has spent the last few years demeaning, delegitimizing, and dehumanizing the press, arguing that they make up stories to damage his administration and calling them the “enemy of the people.” He attempts to limit the impact of damaging stories by convincing his supporters that he is the only truthful source of information about himself.
Neither warnings from journalists and journalism advocacy organizations that his vitriolic rhetoric is putting reporters in physical danger; nor the arrests of individuals who used that rhetoric while threatening to murder journalists; nor the apparent murder of a U.S.-based journalist by a foreign government have halted Trump’s anti-press campaign.
Now, as Trump, his party, and the Fox News propaganda apparatus are trying to get Republican voters to the polls by warning them that they could be killed by the Democratic “mob,” the president is literally applauding a Republican politician’s criminal assault on the press.
In July, President Donald Trump hosted A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, the outlet which is perhaps the biggest target of the president’s years-long effort to delegitimize the U.S. press. In a statement memorializing the White House meeting, Sulzberger said he had gone to the White House with a stark warning for the president: His vicious criticisms of the press, particularly the Stalinist description of journalists as the “enemy of the people,” could reap deadly results for reporters.
“I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists,” he wrote of their exchange. “I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.”
Three months later, Sulzberger’s warning has proved horrifically prescient. A journalist who lives in the U.S. and writes for a major American newspaper has vanished, with reports indicating he may have been brutally murdered by an authoritarian U.S. ally. And Trump’s apathetic response sends a message to other nations that they can repress journalists with impunity, without fear of U.S. reprisals.
Jamal Khashoggi is a journalist, a critic of his native Saudi Arabia’s oppressive regime who had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia, London, and Istanbul, Turkey. He has written for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section since last year, using that platform to lament Saudi Arabia’s repressive atmosphere under its new de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That outspoken dissent, coming at a time when the prince was conducting a U.S. charm offensive, reportedly earned Khashoggi his wrath.
Ten days ago, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document for his upcoming wedding. He has yet to emerge.
It is not yet fully clear what happened to Khashoggi once he stepped inside the consulate, but the picture so far is grim. Turkish authorities have said that members of a Saudi security team interrogated, tortured, and then murdered Khashoggi, dismembered his body, and transported it out of the consulate; some theorize a kidnapping attempt may have gone wrong. U.S. intelligence intercepts suggest American officials knew he was in danger and did nothing. And the Saudis have denied everything, claiming with almost comic gall that Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed that day, but that they are unable to provide footage of him doing so because the consulate’s security cameras were not recording.
It’s difficult to overstate the brazenness of the Saudis’ alleged actions in targeting a U.S. resident who writes for an American paper while he was in a NATO country.
It seems unlikely that the Saudi regime -- dependent as it is on the U.S., and on the Trump administration specifically -- would have tried to kidnap or kill Khashoggi if its rulers thought it would upset Trump. But as Sulzberger warned, Trump’s derision toward reporters gave every indication that he didn’t care. And since Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump has signaled his ongoing apathy. The message the president is sending to dictators around the world is that it is open season on dissident journalists.
Past presidents, aware of the danger of signaling such indifference, might have reacted with outraged statements and a promise of dire consequences for the regime that dared to commit such a crime. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has tried to lay down such a marker, threatening sanctions against the highest levels of the Saudi government if it turns out to be implicated in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
But Trump’s vision of U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally transactional, looking with favor on despots like Crown Prince Mohammed who cater to his whims and sign hefty contracts for U.S. arms, while scorning our democratic allies for not paying “their fair share of common defense costs.”
His response to Khashoggi’s disappearance is in line with a general disregard for human rights: Trump has issued mealy-mouthed statements of concern while thus far rejecting the possibility of concrete action. He has warned that blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in retaliation would “not be acceptable,” and demurred when asked whether the situation would jeopardize U.S. relations with the country.
Others in his administration have followed this policy of going through the motions, requesting information from the Saudis while steering clear of anything that resembles a consequence; while media outlets have begun withdrawing from a Saudi investment conference scheduled for later this month, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said this morning that he still plans to attend, calling Saudi Arabia “a very good partner.”
Even the president’s loyal propagandists at Fox & Friends have said that the administration needs to do more, arguing that Khashoggi’s disappearance is “way over the line” and must be met with sanctions that “really hurt” the Saudi regime.
Khashoggi is not the only victim of the U.S. abandoning even the pretense of standing for liberal values: Oppressive nations have responded with gusto to the changing world order. And just as Sulzberger warned, journalists have been a particular target; the last month alone has seen reporters arrested in Myanmar, imprisoned in Turkey, and murdered in Bulgaria.
But Khashoggi’s disappearance seems to be the clearest link yet from Trump’s anti-press demagoguery to state repression. Trump’s “rhetoric against journalists probably encouraged the Saudis to do it,” a close friend of Khashoggi’s said this week, convincing the regime that “Trump hates journalists and he would not react if we kill one journalist.” Unless Trump and his administration change course and make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable, this won’t be the last time.
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President Donald Trump’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric is putting the lives of American journalists at risk, Mother Jones’ Mark Follman reported Thursday, citing comments from law enforcement leaders and top security officials at two major news outlets.
Trump’s years of vicious invective -- echoed by his allies at Fox News -- are bearing fruit. Reporters are facing a surge in bomb and death threats, organized harassment, online publication of their personal information (“doxxing”), and threatening mail sent to their home addresses, Follman’s sources warn. One security director at a major television news network told Follman that the threats spike when Trump rails against the network by name, with the harassers often using Trump’s “fake news” language, and that they are primarily aimed at journalists who report on the White House and the Trump-Russia probe -- the very targets of the president’s ire.
This heightened fear of violence against reporters will certainly continue throughout Trump’s tenure as president. There’s no indication that he will ever stop demonizing journalists -- this is a deliberate strategy to discredit them for political gain that he has continued employing even after a man was arrested for threatening to murder reporters while using Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. But there’s reason to fear that even after Trump is no longer president -- especially if he wins re-election in 2020 -- his party will continue down the same path. Naked, vicious hostility to the press could become a central plank of the Republican Party, turning elevated concerns about potential violence into the new normal.
Trump’s ascension to the Republican presidential nominee was opposed by a broad cross-section of the party’s establishment. But since he became president, that opposition has almost entirely dissipated.
Trump is now the unchallenged leader of his party, with overwhelming approval ratings among the party base. That support makes him a Republican political kingmaker, with the candidates he supports dominating the primary field this year. Meanwhile, candidates are betting that the best way to win their primaries is to mimic the president’s behavior and publicly pledge their loyalty to him. They are donning his caps and adopting his catchphrases. They parrot his authoritarian calls to imprison his political opponents, his racist demagoguery and his attacks on the press.
That process will only accelerate over the next few years as more skeptical establishment Republicans retire, lose primary challenges, or succumb to Democrats, while Trumpist candidates win Republican primaries and ascend the party hierarchy. The longer Trump remains in power, the stronger his grip will be on the future of the Republican Party, as generations of party leaders gain power because of their fidelity to the president and their willingness to ape his conduct.
That Trumpening of the Republican Party has implications for partisan politics writ large, not least with regard to the way Republicans treat journalists. Conservatives have for decades been trying to work the refs by smearing the media with the “liberal bias” canard. Trump’s campaign builds on that foundation, but his invective is different in tenor, type, and frequency -- a constant drumbeat tarring journalists with Stalinist “enemy of the people” invective. Polling shows that the president’s attacks have warped the Republican base, with a majority now agreeing with that charge.
The base is following the president, and other Republican politicians are following the base. Trump’s staunchest congressional allies and candidates who hope to join them respond to critical coverage by wielding his talking points against the press. Those criticisms are becoming ever more central to their political campaigns: Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), a leading Trump confederate, released a two-minute ad this summer targeting his district’s leading newspaper as a “fake news” outlet that “work[s] closely with radical left-wing groups.”
Even Republicans who were once harshly critical of Trump, like his former primary opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), have seen which way the wind is blowing and responded in kind. “Many Republicans won’t criticize Trump even when they don’t agree with him b/c it means siding with a media that nevers cuts him a break,turns even little things he does into an act of evil,are also unfair to them & in the end will still attack you anyway,” he tweeted in June.
The party leaders most willing to call out the president’s rhetoric are on their way out of power. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) took to the Senate floor earlier this year to decry his "assault" on the media as "unprecedented" and "unwarranted." But that was months after he announced that he would resign at the end of his term, a tacit acknowledgement that his willingness to criticize Trump made it impossible to win his party’s nomination in the current era.
The future of the Republican Party is echoing Trump’s attacks on the press. Only members of its past are willing to speak out against that strategy. And if his party continues to succeed, it will show them that fixating on journalists as the “enemy of the people” is a viable path forward.
Fox News and Fox Business hosts are slamming hundreds of newspapers as “anti-Trump” and “fake news” for coordinating to publish editorials on August 16 denouncing President Donald Trump’s war on the press.
Trump and his administration publicly attacked news organizations and specific journalists hundreds of times in just his first year in office. Though he routinely attacked news organizations during his presidential campaign and the transition period between his election and inauguration, Trump’s anti-press rhetoric reached a new low in February 2017, when he began calling news organizations “the enemy of the American people”:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Trump repeated his comments multiple times, though he eventually added the disclaimer that only “fake news” is “the enemy of the people” -- a bogus claim because he’s spent years labeling a broad range of mainstream news outlets and journalists as “fake news.”
Many newspapers have decided that they’ve had enough and are pushing back. Led by The Boston Globe, more than 100 newspaper editorial boards around the country are reportedly planning to publish editorials on August 16 “on the dangers of the administration’s assault on the press.” Each newspaper will be writing its own editorial in this coordinated effort.
Fox, which has both served as a platform for Trump’s attacks on the press and promoted his attacks on its own, is now criticizing the newspapers participating in this effort as anti-Trump and “fake news.” On August 13, five Fox News and Fox Business hosts took offense to the coordinated editorial release protesting Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. Fox & Friends First co-host Rob Schmitt said these newspapers are releasing editorials “attacking the president” and that “there is just kind of a mainstream, somewhat leftist bias coming from a lot of our media companies.” Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy commented that The Boston Globe “said essentially they’re going after the president.” Varney & Co. guest host Ashley Webster and Wall Street Journal editorial board member James Freeman both defended Trump’s rhetoric that the media are “the enemy of the people,” pushing Trump’s ridiculous claim that his critique applies only to “fake news.” Fox Business host Lou Dobbs referred to the planned editorials as “anti-Trump screeds” by “coordinated national left-wing fake news.” And Fox host Laura Ingraham, while criticizing media coverage of antifa actions against reporters, mocked the newspapers’ coordinated effort as “not collusion or anything.”
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Journalists from AP, CNN, E&E News, and Politico were all prevented from attending
This post was updated on 5/23/18 to incorporate additional news reports.
Reporters from The Associated Press, CNN, E&E News, and Politico were barred from attending parts of an Environmental Protection Agency summit on water contaminants on May 22 and 23. At one point, security guards used force to remove an AP reporter from the building.
From a May 22 AP report:
The Environmental Protection Agency is barring The Associated Press, CNN and the environmental-focused news organization E&E from a national summit on harmful water contaminants.
The EPA blocked the news organizations from attending Tuesday’s Washington meeting, convened by EPA chief Scott Pruitt.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told the barred organizations they were not invited and there was no space for them, but gave no indication of why they specifically were barred.
Pruitt told about 200 people at the meeting that dealing with the contaminants is a “national priority.”
The AP’s environmental reporter tweeted about the incident:
The @AP, @CNN and E&E all showed up to cover this @EPA meeting on widespread, dangerous contaminants in many drinking water systems around the country. We were all turned away at the door of the EPA building. https://t.co/j8JthyiM3k
— Ellen Knickmeyer (@KnickmeyerEllen) May 22, 2018
The @EPA told @AP, @CNN they weren't invited to @AdministratorPruitt's #PFAS summit. EPA guards grabbed AP reporter by shoulders, shoved reporter out of building when she asked to talk to agency public-affairs person about covering meeting https://t.co/9g1BZsG8cy
— Ellen Knickmeyer (@KnickmeyerEllen) May 22, 2018
An E&E News reporter tweeted:
This morning's PFAS Leadership Summit at @EPA headquarters is open to the press... just not to reporters from @EENewsUpdates, @AP or @CNN. We've all asked the agency's press office why we're being selectively shut out and have gotten no responses.
— Corbin Hiar (@CorbinHiar) May 22, 2018
Hallie Jackson of NBC News relayed an EPA spokesperson's response:
EPA spox tells me the reporter “was not invited” and threatened negative coverage if she wasn’t allowed in. “We provided a livestream.” When asked how that excuses physically grabbing a reporter, he indicated he wasn’t involved in that and would get back to me. https://t.co/goUIVs19Xd
— Hallie Jackson (@HallieJackson) May 22, 2018
CNN issued a statement:
CNN has issued a statement on getting turned away from the EPA summit today. pic.twitter.com/BAnekREfIr
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) May 22, 2018
The EPA issued a statement opening the second half of the May 22 meeting to any outlet, contradicting a previous statement:
This is a total 180 from the statement EPA gave earlier that space restraints limited attendance.
Now appears any outlet who wants to attend the second half of the hearing can. (It was previously opened to no press) https://t.co/Vwp8RRhCqQ
— Miranda Green (@mirandacgreen) May 22, 2018
But on the following day, May 23, the EPA again blocked journalists from attending the summit, including Emily Holden from Politico, author and journalist Mariah Blake, and, once again, journalists from E&E News and CNN.
I’m standing at EPA’s chemicals summit, where I’m told by security that I can’t enter and can’t stand inside because it is invite only and no press. They were polite but refused to call public affairs staff, even if I gave them the number (which they said they didn’t have).
— Emily Holden (@emilyhholden) May 23, 2018
— Emily Holden (@emilyhholden) May 23, 2018
I'm told CNN's producer was also turned away from EPA's toxic chemicals summit. That makes at least four of us.
— Emily Holden (@emilyhholden) May 23, 2018
As Holden reported, "The Federal Advisory Committee Act states that ‘any committee, board, commission, council, conference, panel, task force, or other similar group’ used by an agency ‘in the interest of obtaining advice or recommendations’ for the federal government must be open to the public.” Holden asked for a statement about why the EPA thinks its actions were not a violation of the act, but the EPA simply pointed her to its statement from the previous day about the event being at capacity.
This is just the latest in a long string of incidents in which EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's press team has blocked reporters from events as well as dropped them from press release distribution lists and retaliated against them in other ways. On April 3, Pruitt barred reporters from his announcement about loosening automobile fuel economy standards. Journalists have been escorted out of Pruitt events by police. Reporters from The Associated Press and The New York Times have been personally attacked in official agency press releases. And the EPA has repeatedly refused to give reporters basic information about the agency's staffing and activities.
Pruitt is currently under fire for multiple scandals and seemingly corrupt activities, including a sweetheart deal he got to rent a D.C. condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist.
The Trump administration has a history of blacklisting reporters. In February of 2017, reporters from The New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed News, and Politico were barred from attending a briefing in then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s office. During the campaign, Trump banned a number of outlets from his events. There are numerous other examples of Trump’s war on the press.
The May 22 and 23 summit on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) comes days after a Politico report revealed that Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block a Health and Human Services study about PFAS and water contamination that “would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe.” According to the article, a Trump aide had said the release of the study would cause a “public relations nightmare.”