First Lady Melania Trump has said that when her husband, Donald, is attacked, he will “punch back 10 times harder.” On Sunday, President Trump put those pugilistic instincts on display for all the world to see, circulating a doctored video clip that showed him physically attacking a crudely rendered stand-in for CNN, then walking away with a grimace of satisfaction.
After a week in which even Republicans were provoked to plead with the president to stop tweeting, the new post on Twitter again struck a nerve, drawing fresh rebukes from critics who called it an incitement to violence and a degradation of the highest office in the land.
Trump’s supporters and surrogates, though, defended the video clip as harmless mockery, denied such postings distracted from his agenda, or cheered the message outright.
Trump had already taken his feud with the news media to new heights last week with a coarse personal attack on the appearance and intellect of cable television host Mika Brzezinski, accompanied by slurs against her co-host and fiancé Joe Scarborough, that sparked the most recent uproar against the president for his online musings.
In the face of the bipartisan criticism, the president was defiant. On Saturday, he defended his social-media habits, describing his Twitter use as a legitimate tool of a 21st century White House – or, in Trump tweet-parlance, “MODERN PRESIDENTIAL.” Aides have described his use of the platform as a means of bypassing traditional news media filters.
But Trump’s relish of public combat – and his igniting another online controversy before the previous one has died down -- flies in the face of widespread appeals for greater civility in political discourse, particularly in the wake of last month’s shooting at a congressional GOP baseball practice in suburban Alexandria, Va., that left a House Republican leader, Rep. Steve Scalise (R.-La.), badly wounded and several others injured.
Sunday’s tweeted video also spawned comparisons to then-congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s body-slamming of a reporter for Britain’s Guardian newspaper on the eve of a special election in Montana. Gianforte, a Republican who won the election, initially denied the account of the reporter, but later apologized. A court subsequently ordered him to do 40 hours of community service and attend anger-management classes. Trump later lauded Gianforte for a “great win,” and many among his base cheered the assault.
The video clip tweeted out by the president, which used an altered version of a years-old promotional video for professional wrestling, showed Trump, clad in a business suit and tie, administering a choreographed beat-down to another business-suited figure whose head, flapping in time to simulated punches, was superimposed with CNN’s logo. The president embellished the tweeted video with his own hashtags: #FraudNewsCNN and #FNN.
Trump’s friend Vince McMahon -- the professional wrestling magnate whose wife and former business partner Linda McMahon is now in Trump’s cabinet, as head of the Small Business Administration — is thought to be the figure whose head is blotted out by CNN’s logo in the clip, a version of which has been in circulation in recent days on the Internet platform Reddit.
CNN, which has been a particular target of presidential ire since the network retracted a story relating to an element of the sprawling investigation into possible collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign, quickly condemned the tweet.
“It is a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters,” the network said in statement, saying that Trump ought to turn his attention to matters such as North Korea and healthcare.
“We will keep doing our jobs,” the CNN statement added. “He should start doing his.”
As is often the case, the president’s surrogates were left scrambling to explain or justify an unexpected Twitter outburst by their boss. Homeland security advisor Thomas Bossert, who was shown the clip while appearing on ABC’s Sunday program “This Week,” watched stone-faced and then declared, “No one would perceive that as a threat. I hope they don’t.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, appearing on NBC”s “Meet the Press,” repeatedly ducked questions about the propriety of Trump’s repeated personal attacks against individuals, batting aside a pointed query from interviewer Chuck Todd about what he would tell his own son if he tweeted comments about women like those Trump made about MSNBC’s Brzezinski.
Trump last week called Brzezinski “crazy,” “low IQ,” and “dumb as a rock,” and asserted – falsely, Brzezinski said, and photos prove -- that she had appeared at his winter retreat at Mar-a-Lago “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” Asked whether such tirades distracted from Trump’s agenda, including the healthcare bill that stalled last week for lack of Senate Republicans’ support, Price snapped: “The fact of the matter is that he can do more than one thing at a time.”
The night before, the president also used a celebration of veterans at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to denounce the news media.
“The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House,” Trump told the raucous crowd. “But I’m president, and they’re not.”
Trump broke off a weekend outing to his Bedminster, N.J., golf course to return to Washington for the campaign-style event on Saturday, then flew back to New Jersey later that evening, prompting a new wave of online criticism over the mounting costs of his frequent getaways.
The president’s public schedule for Sunday at Bedminster listed no public events but included scheduled evening calls with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He was to return to Washington Monday evening.
With many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, particularly women, already dismayed by Trump’s vindictive tweets directed at Brzezinski, some expressed renewed concern over the tweeted video. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, without mentioning the president by name, spoke out on Twitter against the use of “violence & violent imagery to bully the press.”
Pelosi urged that the Fourth of July commemorations include celebrating “freedom of the press, guardians to our democracy.”
Another Republican, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, has been a more forceful critic of Trump’s anti-media crusade. Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” about Trump’s earlier attacks against the media and individual journalists, Sasse said it was important not to “weaponize distrust” even in the face of flawed news coverage.
The retracted CNN story that Trump has seized upon reported that the Senate was looking into ties between a Trump transition aide, Anthony Scaramucci, and the head of a Russian bank. A reporter and two editors tendered their resignations when the network determined the piece had not met CNN’s editorial standards.
Scaramucci quickly accepted the network’s apology, but Trump has continued to rail against CNN, on Saturday referring to it as “garbage journalism.”