As his administration was slow-walking its response to the murder of an American-based journalist in the Istanbul consulate of an American ally, Donald Trump flew to Montana to praise a congressman who assaulted a journalist covering an election.
Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian as he was bidding for an open House seat in 2016. Angered at being asked basic questions about his campaign, Gianforte body-slammed the reporter. On Thursday, Trump’s argument for his Republican ally was a warning to the crowd: “[Never] wrestle him. You understand that? Never. Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of… he was my guy.”
In case anyone in the crowd, or around the world, missed the president’s point, he spelled things out for them.
As the crowd in Missoula whooped it up, Trump announced that “I shouldn’t say this, because—there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. So I was in Rome with a lot of the leaders from other countries talking about all sorts of things, and I heard about it. And we endorsed Greg very early, but I had heard that he body-slammed a reporter. And he was way up. And he was way up. And I said, oh, this was like the day of the election, or just before, and I said, ‘Oh, this is terrible, he’s going to lose the election.’ Then I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him.’ And it did!”
The president’s disdain for American journalists so overwhelms him that he does not recognize his duty as a global leader to defend freedom of the press. So it is that, in a perilous moment for those who speak truth to the power of authoritarian states, Donald Trump is achingly off-message.
On Thursday afternoon, after days of making excuses for the Saudi regime with which his administration has so closely aligned itself, Trump acknowledged Thursday that Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was probably dead and that it looked like some “bad, bad stuff” had taken place in Istanbul. Yet the president could not wrap his head around the fact that this was a time for expressing solidarity with journalists everywhere and for sending clear signals regarding the vital role that a free press plays in maintaining democracy and civil society.
Trump’s tin ear has, again, made him the odd man out on the global stage. And that is not a place where the president of the United States should position either himself or a country that prides itself on its commitment to press freedom. Robust good journalism is still produced in the United States, and 85 percent of Americans still believe “freedom of the press is essential for American democracy.”
Unfortunately, a president who labels reporters as “the enemy of the people” does not choose to champion freedom of the press.
Or, even, to show the basic respect for reporters.
The shocking details of the Khashoggi case have focused attention on threats to press freedom in countries around the world, and on the urgent need—in the words of Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Deloire—to fight impunity for crimes against journalists.” Responsible leaders have recognized this need, and they have echoed sentiments expressed by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, when she went out of her way this week to “reaffirm our commitment to defending freedom of expression and protection of the free press.”
But Donald Trump has not responded as a responsible leader. He has, instead, chosen this moment to make himself the head cheerleader for a politician who assaulted a journalist. This is not normal. John Mulholland, the editor of The Guardian’s US operations, responded soberly, explaining that “The president of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian. To celebrate an attack on a journalist who was simply doing his job is an attack on the first amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it.”
That is an appropriate critique. Donald Trump solemnly swore on January 20, 2017, that he would “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The founders of the American experiment—not just the authors of the Constitution but the citizens who demanded the attachment of a Bill of Rights—pointed to an essential truth that American president’s have historically embraced.
“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed—and no republic can survive,” explained President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in his historic 1961 address on the presidency and mass media. “That is why our press was protected by the First Amendment—the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution—not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply ‘give the public what it wants’—but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion. This means greater coverage and analysis of international news—for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local.”
The same Constitution that recognizes the vital linkage between journalism and democracy outlines a system of checks and balances. This separation of powers is designed to counter abuses by presidents. Unfortunately, it is not working now. President Trump is part of the problem, but he is not the whole of it. Because Trump’s excesses are sustained by a Republican-controlled House and advanced by a Republican-controlled Senate, this president operates without constraints. He is never held to account, never scrutinized, never checked and balanced by the House or the Senate, not when he errs against the demands of the Constitution, not when he rejects the responsibilities that go with his office.
Trump is a destructive force, domestically and internationally. His policies can do great harm. His words can do ever greater harm. He would prefer that this circumstance continue; that is why he was campaigning in Montana for Greg Gianforte. That is why he will keep campaigning through November 6 for the congressional Republicans who always give him a pass. But this president cannot be given a pass any longer. He needs to be checked and balanced by a Congress that is prepared to tell the world—with resolutions, oversight hearings, legislation and budgets—that that the man who lost the 2016 election by 2.9 million votes is wrong, and that he is not the only voice of America.