President Trump has threatened press freedoms before, but on Wednesday he went a step further: suggesting that television networks lose their federal broadcast licenses for what he considers “fake news.”
The president, who made his statement in a morning post on Twitter, was provoked by an NBC report that he had called for a “tenfold” increase in nuclear arms during a July meeting with national security advisors.
“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” he tweeted.
Hours later, Trump elaborated on that threat in comments to reporters in the Oval Office. “It is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it,” he said in advance of a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Substantively, Trump’s threat is fairly empty: NBC and other networks do not hold a license for the network as a whole. Licenses are issued to local stations; NBC owns 28. Under deregulatory measures that Republicans successfully pushed since the Reagan administration, challenging a license on the grounds that coverage is unfair or biased would be extremely difficult.
Still, the president’s remarks alarmed 1st Amendment advocates for suggesting the use of government power to punish the media, recalling for many the threats of President Nixon.
“The founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the 1st Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press," said Gordon Smith, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters and a former Republican senator from Oregon.
“It is contrary to this fundamental right for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist,” he said.
Michael Copps, a former Federal Communications Commission commissioner, called it a “madcap threat” that, “if pursued, would be blatant and unacceptable intervention in the decisions of an independent agency.”
In addition to bigger media outlets, Copps said smaller independent stations around the country will find the threat chilling because they lack the money to defend themselves.
The tweet fits a pattern for Trump when he is reacting to perceived antagonists.
He previously had spoken of making libel laws stricter and of other crackdowns on the media. On Tuesday in a tweet, he questioned why the National Football League should have “massive tax breaks” when some players are “disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country?”
Trump’s latest tirade against NBC was triggered when it reported last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately called Trump a “moron” and nearly quit the administration out of concern about the president’s behavior and policies. Tillerson denied he said that, after initially declining a chance to deny it.
The network followed up Wednesday with a report on what Trump had said to prompt Tillerson to make the comment. Tillerson spoke, the network said, following a July 20 national security meeting at which Trump advocated a near-tenfold increase in the nuclear arsenal and questioned why he lacked the larger stockpile that past presidents had. Advisors told him that the U.S. since has entered into numerous treaties to reduce arsenals and that current weaponry is more potent.
Late Wednesday, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis issued a statement saying, “Recent reports that the president called for an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are absolutely false. This kind of erroneous reporting is irresponsible.”
Trump has been furious at the coverage. While saying it was “fake news” that Tillerson called him a moron, Trump nonetheless challenged Tillerson to an IQ test in a Forbes interview published Tuesday and tweeted separately Wednesday that the NBC account is “pure fiction, made up to demean.”
“That was fake news by NBC,” Trump repeated in the Oval Office, as Trudeau sat alongside him. “Which is a lot of fake news lately.”
He also suggested he never would have called for a tenfold increase in nuclear weapons, saying such a buildup would be “totally unnecessary.” Instead, Trump said, he wants the nuclear arsenal to be in “tiptop shape.”
Asked whether there should be limits on what journalists can write, Trump softened his tone from his morning call for government action.
“No. The press should speak more honestly,” he said. “I’ve seen tremendously dishonest press. It’s not even a question of distortion.”
Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera contributed to this report.
3:55 p.m.: The story was updated to add a quote from Defense Secretary James N. Mattis.
The story was originally published at 2:25 p.m.