Donald Trump has decried, derided, and dismissed reporters and news outlets since he emerged as a presidential contender in 2015. Even after he swore an inaugural oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” that guarantees a free press, this president has continued to attack major newspapers, magazines, cable news networks, and the major broadcasters of the United States.
But now Trump has escalated his assault on journalism with an abuse of his position that cannot be neglected. Angered by recent NBC News reports that he has sought to dramatically increase America’s nuclear-weapons stockpile, and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to him as a “moron,” Trump went off the rails. He did not merely rip the revelations as “fake news”; he took the dramatically more serious step of suggesting that the network might be punished for broadcasting accounts that did not meet with his approval.
“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?” Trump asked in a Wednesday-morning tweet. “Bad for country!” He continued.
Hours later, Trump got more specific, and even more ominous. “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked,” he tweeted. “Not fair to public!”
Those threats came on the same day that America’s current chief executive chose to trash one of the basic premises of the freedom-of-the-press protection contained in the First Amendment. During an Oval Office appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump griped, “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want.”
What distinguishes the latest presidential tirade from previous meltdowns is Trump’s amplification of his constant complaining about negative coverage with more aggressive language and a suggestion that regulatory power might be used to punish critics.
The president appoints members of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that issues and regulates broadcast licenses. Those licenses are issued to individual television stations, as opposed to networks. And the FCC is not in the business of pulling licenses from those stations because of their broadcasting of network content. As Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee to the FCC, noted in a tweet that responded to the president, Trump’s “challenge the license” scenario is “Not how it works.”