On a day President Donald Trump promised to deliver “Fake News Awards,” two Republican senators as well as several Democrats warned Wednesday that his unceasing attacks on a free press are undermining a fundamental tenet of democracy and emboldening despots abroad.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics, delivered an impassioned speech from the Senate floor, comparing Trump’s anti-press rhetoric to that of the murderous Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and calling on his colleagues to speak out against Trump’s “shameful, repulsive statements.”
Recalling Trump’s first year in office, Flake said, “2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than at any time in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government.”
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois also spoke out against Trump’s rhetoric, echoing Flake’s accusation that Trump is trying to upend the distinction between objective truth and lying.
The bipartisan rebukes of the president marked another seminal moment in the Trump era, which has come to be defined by his routine challenges to political norms and traditions. It is common for lawmakers to criticize presidents on policy, but less so for members of their own party, and yet exceedingly rare for any of them to fault a president’s fealty to basic democratic values.
“When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press,” Flake added.
Flake’s comments were buttressed by his fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, who warned in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that Trump’s efforts to undermine the press are “being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.”
Both men made the point that Trump has stood on its head the United States’ traditional role as an example to the world of press freedom. Governments and autocrats — in Singapore, Myanmar, Venezuela, Libya, Egypt and Turkey, among others — have cited Trump’s “fake news” theme in acting against press criticism in their countries.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Flake, who is not running for re-election, of seeking attention. She also accused him of hypocrisy because he visited Cuba, which has jailed journalists, and served “as a mouthpiece for the oppressive Cuban government.”
“Certainly, I think our position here at the White House is that we welcome access to the media every day,” she said, standing in the briefing room. “I’m standing right here, taking questions. The president does so regularly.”
Trump tweeted on Jan. 2 that he would announce “THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR” at 5 p.m. on Jan. 8. He later wrote on Twitter that the awards would “be presented to the losers on Wednesday, January 17th.”
While White House press officials including Sanders could provide no information throughout the day, just after 8 p.m., Trump tweeted: “And the FAKE NEWS winners are … ” in the style of a Hollywood awards show, and linked to a Republican Party website.
It listed 10 instances of press errors, including one that was not a factual mistake but rather a bad prediction from a New York Times columnist. Most of the errors resulted in corrections, disciplinary action for the reporters or both. Among them was a mistaken report about the Russia investigation that helped cause the stock market to fall and resulted in a suspension for ABC News reporter Brian Ross.
The president has used the term “fake news” on his Twitter feed at least 167 times since being elected, according to a search in an online archive — most often to disparage reporting about him or his administration. The attacks on the media have been an effective political tool since during his campaign, rallying supporters and insulating him, to some extent, from unflattering reporting.
“Fake news” initially referred to hoax stories believed to be planted by Russian operatives in an attempt to influence the presidential election. Trump co-opted the term to disparage legitimate reporting.
Trump, who once last year called the press the “enemy of the people,” recently threatened to seek harsher libel laws and revoke networks’ broadcast licenses, areas where his powers are limited. Members of his administration have spoken similarly about the media, complaining that reporters have lowered their standards to undermine Trump’s legitimacy.
“There’s a very big difference between making honest mistakes and purposefully misleading the American people, something that happens regularly,” Sanders told reporters in December.
“You can’t say that it’s an honest mistake when you are purposely putting out information that you know to be false or when you’re taking information that hasn’t been validated, that hasn’t been offered any credibility and that has been continually denied by a number of people, including people with direct knowledge of an incident.”
Flake and McCain took issue with such talk from the president and his aides, focusing on the dangers not just to the United States but internationally.
Flake, in his speech, pointed to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists noting that 21 of 262 journalists imprisoned in 2017 were charged with “false news.” He read accounts of Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissing an Amnesty International report of 13,000 deaths in his military prisons as “fake news,” and of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government has been implicated in thousands of extrajudicial killings, calling reporters “spies” — while Trump laughed beside him during a meeting in November.