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Defending Free Press in the Age of Trump



Polarization plagues American politics. According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of Republicans expressed political values in 2017 that were more conservative than the median Democrat. Conversely, 97% of Democrats expressed political values that were more liberal than the median Republican. Voters on both sides of the political spectrum have trended toward the extremes. Far fewer Americans in 2017 hold a mix of political beliefs than they did in 2004 and 1994.






Even American news outlets are practically partisan. On the left, one finds CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, NPR, the Washington Post, and the “failing” New York Times. On the right, Fox News, Breitbart, and Infowars.


Over the course of the past two years, President Trump has vilified the former category, calling these liberal media networks “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” Moreover, he has accused these outlets of sowing division and hatred in the U.S.


“I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” – President Donald Trump (speech at CIA headquarters, January 21, 2017)[1]


In October 2018, a series of sixteen pipe bombs were mailed via the U.S. Postal Service to several prominent critics of President Trump – including various Democratic party politicians (such as former U.S. President Barrack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). Other recipients included U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, two former intelligence chiefs (ex-CIA Director John O. Brennan and ex-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.), billionaires George Soros and Tom Steyer, and actor Robert De Niro.[2] Yet another package was sent to CNN’s world headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.


On October 26, 2018, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., 56, was arrested in connection with the attempted pipe-bombings and charged with five federal crimes: “interstate transportation of an explosive,” “illegal mailing of explosives,” “threats against former presidents and other persons,” “threatening interstate communications,” and “assaulting federal officers.”[3]


Sayoc was a registered Republican living in Florida, and an out-spoken supporter of President Trump. According to the Miami New Times, Sayoc was active in social media, where he frequently posted pro-Trump and anti-liberal messages and memes.[4] Sayoc’s van – which was seized during his arrest – was covered with iconographic images of President Trump and Vice President Mice Pence, along with a sticker that read “CNN Sucks.” Other stickers on the van depicted Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Michael Moore, Van Jones, and Jill Stein with crosshairs on their chests/faces.[5]


A day after Sayoc’s arrest (on October 27), a gunman armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle open-fired in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 congregants and wounding seven others – including four police officers. Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, was arrested in connection with the shooting and charged with 29 federal and 36 state crimes.


Just hours after the shooting – at a campaign rally for Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) in southern Illinois – President Trump strongly condemned Bowers’ act of domestic terror:


We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism, vanquish the forces of hate… Through the centuries, the Jews have endured terrible persecution. You know that. We’ve all read it. We’ve studied it. They’ve gone through a lot… Those seeking [the Jewish people’s] destruction, we will seek their destruction.[6]


Yet Trump immediately coupled this denunciation with a strong condemnation of his critics in the liberal media. In a tweet on October 29, the President argued that the “great anger in our Country” has been “caused in part” by the “Fake News Media,” whom he called “the true Enemy of the People.”


President Trump has since discounted any possibility that his own vitriolic rhetoric played a part in motivating the Pittsburgh shooting and the attempted pipe bombings.




Sayoc and Bowers are alone culpable for the aforementioned acts of domestic terror. President Trump neither ordered nor intended these attacks to occur. As such, he cannot be held directly responsible.


Nevertheless, Donald Trump is responsible for cultivating an atmosphere of white nationalism and contempt for journalists, immigrants, and minorities in American society. The remainder of this article will therefore focus on his attacks on CNN and other liberal (“fake news”) outlets. I argue that the Trump administration is engaging in dangerous, quasi-authoritarian behavior in attempting to stifle the free press.


President Trump has long targeted liberal media outlets such as ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN, which have variously criticized his personal comportment/demeanor and the actions of his administration. Trump has been particularly contemptuous of CNN, whom he calls the “fake news” and “fraud news network.”


On July 2, 2017, Trump retweeted a 2007 video of him body-slamming and punching WWE CEO Vince McMahon. The video had been edited to superimpose the CNN logo on McMahon’s face – making it appear as though Trump was pummeling the cable news network. President Trump captioned the tweet “#FraudNewsCNN #FNN,” presumably shortening his moniker for CNN – the “Fraud News Network.”





On October 18, 2018, at a campaign rally in Missoula, Montana, President Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for assaulting a Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs, in his bid for Congress in May 2017:[6]  “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy,” Trump declared. Trump’s endorsement of Gianforte’s assault came in the wake of revelations regarding the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018.


Two-hundred-and-eleven journalists (the vast majority being retired or semi-retired) subsequently denounced President Trump’s “sustained pattern” of attacks on the free press in an open letter dated October 25, 2018. These reporters described Trump’s behavior as “un-American and utterly unlawful and unseemly for the President of the United States and leader of the free world”:


Trump’s condoning of political violence is part of a sustained pattern of attack on a free press – which includes labeling any reportage he doesn’t like as “fake news” and barring reporters and news organizations whom he wishes to punish from press briefings and events. One of the pillars of a free and open democracy is a vibrant free press. At his inauguration, the President of the United States swears to protect the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment. This President is utterly failing to do so and actively working not simply to undermine the press, but to incite violence against it as well.[8]


Notwithstanding this scathing denunciation, President Trump has since continued to express contempt for the liberal news media – whom he has labeled “the enemy of the people.”


On November 7, 2018, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, incurred the ire of President Trump by asking a series of pointed questions at a post-midterms news conference. In response, Trump insulted Acosta, calling him a “terrible” person.[9]


After President Trump declined to answer any more of Acosta’s questions, a White House intern attempted to take away the correspondent’s microphone. This led to an awkward and controversial exchange, in which Acosta resisted surrendering his mic. The Trump administration subsequently announced that it would be suspending Acosta’s press pass “until further notice” – citing his so-called “assault” on the White House intern.[10]


On November 8, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders tweeted a video of Jim Acosta that appeared to have been doctored to make his interaction with the White House intern seem more aggressive.



A frame-by-frame comparison of Sanders’ video with that taken by the Associated Press shows that the former was apparently altered to speed up Acosta’s arm movement as he made contact with the intern. Said analysis was conducted by Abba Shapiro, an independent video producer, who concluded that Sanders’ video was in fact doctored. The alteration is “too precise to be an accident,” said Shapiro. Moreover, the tweeted video does not have any audio, which makes it easier to alter. Shapiro also claimed that it is unlikely that the differences could be explained by technical glitches or by video compression.[11]


As such, it seems that the White House press secretary published a doctored video on her official Twitter account to justify the Trump administration’s action in revoking the press pass of Jim Acosta. Said video might therefore be described as visual propaganda and/or strategic disinformation used to justify a potential first amendment free press violation.


On November 13, CNN filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration, claiming that the White House’s suspension of Acosta’s press pass violated the first and fifth amendments. On November 16, federal district Judge Timothy J. Kelly, a Trump-appointee, granted CNN its request for a temporary restraining order to force the White House to restore Acosta's credentials.


Judge Kelly argued that – insofar as the President did not inform Acosta at the press conference that he would/could have his press pass taken – Acosta’s due process rights under the Fifth Amendment had been violated. Kelly also held that Acosta suffered “irreparable harm” as a result this revocation. He declined to rule on whether or not the Trump administration’s actions violated the First Amendment’s free press provision.[12] In response to this ruling, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders issued a statement affirming that the White House would “temporarily reinstate [Acosta’s] hard pass.”[13]


It is unclear whether or not the Trump Administration’s decision to revoke Jim Acosta’s press pass violated the First Amendment’s free press provision. Trump’s attorneys make a plausible claim that access to the White House can be restricted at the president’s discretion. “If the president wants to exclude all reporters from the White House grounds, he clearly has the discretion to do that,” James Burnham, the president’s lawyer, argued.[14]  


Yet, in light of Trump’s contempt for CNN (and the liberal news media in general), this action seems hostile to the spirit of the First Amendment’s free press protection. Free press and free speech stand at the cornerstone of American democracy (and, indeed, republican democracy itself). The fact that President Trump has so often expressed disdain for these First Amendment guarantees should, in and of itself, arouse concern. 


Not only has Trump repeated attacked the liberal news media (by calling them “the enemy of the people” and “fake news”), he has frequently expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman – who have variously assassinated adversarial journalists.


Notwithstanding the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals, 12 Russian intelligence officers, and three Russian companies for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, President Trump has consistently resisted criticizing Vladimir Putin.[15] Below is a list of Trump’s statements regarding Putin (in reverse chronological order), compiled by CNN on July 16, 2018:


1. “Congratulations to France, who played extraordinary soccer, on winning the 2018 World Cup. Additionally, congratulations to President Putin and Russia for putting on a truly great World Cup Tournament -- one of the best ever!”

2. “I’d have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spend time together.”

3. “I think that we would have a chance to have a very good relationship with Russia and a very good chance -- a very good relationship with President Putin.”

4. “You know what? Putin's fine. He's fine. We’re all fine.”

5. “I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin.”

6. “I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing...”

7. “I believe that President Putin really feels, and he feels strongly, that he did not meddle in our election.”

8. “But I think Putin and I — President Putin and I would have a great relationship, and that would be great for both countries.”

9. “So you look at that, and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that. Now, you're not going to get into an argument.”

10. “President Putin and I have been discussing various things and I think it's going very well. We’ve some very, very good talks. We're going to have a talk now and obviously that will continue. But we look forward to a lot of good, positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned.”

11. “Look, it would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we're not going to make a deal.”


As of July 4, 2016, PunditFact found that at least 34 journalists had been murdered in Russia since Vladimir Putin rose to power in 2000.[16] (This tally only includes deaths confirmed or likely to be work-related homicides committed in Russia. It does not include murders where the motives were unclear, or where journalists were killed in war and on other dangerous assignments – like covering mob activities or riots.)[17]


According to the international watchdog Freedom House, Russia has a free press score of 83 (on a scale of 0 being “most free” and 100 being “least free”).[18] Citing this data, PunditFact notes that while Russia “has never been known for its media independence, [its] press freedom and ranking have continuously decreased in the past decade under Putin.”[19]



Trump has also been reluctant to criticize Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) for the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi.[20]


Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! ... That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world! – President Donald Trump (November 20, 2018)[21]


Note that the CIA had since concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had indeed ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.[22]


While President Trump has relentlessly criticized the liberal media and praised/defended authoritarian leaders like Putin and MBS, he has not incarcerated reporters or assassinated his critics. Free press and free speech remain robust in the United States.


Nevertheless, Trump’s flagrant contempt for the liberal media and his praise of authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Muhammad bin Salman might (a) serve to weaken free press in America, and (b) undermine civil liberties worldwide. 


The United States serves as an inspirational model for all countries seeking to safeguard free press. As Freedom House notes in its 2017 report, “Press Freedom's Dark Horizon”:


Protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide; indeed, it is a cornerstone of global democracy. When political leaders in the United States lambast the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same. When U.S. leaders step back from promoting democracy and press freedom, journalists beyond American shores feel the chill… Further weakening of press freedom in the United States would be a setback for democracy everywhere.[23]


The U.S. Constitution provides for a system of separation of powers and checks and balances wherein legislative and judicial officials are able to punish and prevent instances of executive overreach. We saw that in the matter of the Trump administration’s rescinding of Jim Acosta’s press pass, federal district Judge Timothy J. Kelly (a Trump appointee) granted CNN’s request for a temporary restraining order to force the White House to restore Acosta's credentials. This should inspire hope. Checks and balances do work.


Yet the phrase “checks and balances” describes a procedure – not an institution. If one branch of government declines to check the actions of another, then the whole system falls apart. The unchecked branch grows at the expense of the others, leading to a constitutional crisis.


It is thus vital that our legislature, judiciary, and democratic electorate continue to safeguard free press and free speech by proactively countering attacks by President Trump and other partisan officials seeking to stifle criticism for their own political gain.





[1] Shane Goldmacher and Matthew Nussaum, “At CIA headquarters, Trump boasts about himself, denies feud,” Politico, January 21, 2017, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/trump-cia-langley-233971.


[2] William K. Rashbaum, Alan Feuer, and Adam Goldman, “Pipe Bombs Investigation Turns Toward Florida as More Trump Critics Are Targeted,” The New York Times, October 25, 2018, Accessed on December 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/nyregion/bomb-explosive-device.html.


[3] Dan Mangan, “Fingerprint leads to federal charges against Florida man Cesar Sayoc for bombs sent Obama, Clinton and other Trump critics,” CNBC, October 26, 2018, Accessed on December 12, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/26/florida-man-cesar-sayoc-charged-with-five-federal-crimes-in-bomb-threats-to-obama-clinton-and-others.html.


[4] Meg O'Connor, Jessica Lipscomb, “Social Media Posts Show Florida Bomber Cesar Sayoc Held Extremist Views,” Miami New Times, October 26, 2018, Accessed on December 12, 2018, https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/cesar-sayocs-social-media-posts-show-florida-bomber-cesar-sayoc-held-extremist-views-10859874.


[5] Philip Bump, “The mail-bomb suspect’s van, annotated,” The Washington Post, October 26, 2018, Accessed on December 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/10/26/mail-bomb-suspects-van-annotated/?utm_term=.d0764614cb63.


[6] David A. Graham, “After Pittsburgh, All Eyes Are on Trump Once More,” The Atlantic, October 27, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/10/trumps-comments-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting/574177/.


[7] Paul Waldman, “Trump encourages violence against reporters, and his supporters cheer,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2018, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2018/10/19/trump-encourages-violence-against-reporters-and-his-supporters-cheer/?utm_term=.a502e94869d7.


[8] “Former ABC News staffers letter condemning President Trump's anti-press rhetoric,” October 25, 2018, Accessed on December 26, 2018, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5019198-Former-ABC-News-staffers-letter-condemning.html.


[9] Michael Burke, “Acosta: ‘I didn’t put my hands on’ White House intern,” The Hill, November 7, 2018, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://thehill.com/homenews/media/415652-acosta-i-didnt-put-my-hands-on-white-house-intern.


[10] Ibid.


[11] David Bauder and Calvin Woodward, “White House shared doctored video of CNN’s Jim Acosta, independent expert says,” Chicago Tribune, November 2018, 2018, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/ct-jim-acosta-video-cnn-20181108-story.html.


[12] Kathryn Watson, “Jim Acosta can keep his White House press pass, court rules,” CBS News, November 16, 2018, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cnn-lawsuit-ruling-jim-acosta-can-keep-his-press-pass/.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Ibid.


[15] Brennan Weiss, Ellen Cranley, and Grace Panetta, “Here's everyone who has been charged and convicted in Mueller’s Russia probe so far,” Business Insider, December 8, 2018, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/who-has-been-charged-in-russia-investigation-mueller-trump-2017-12.


[16] Linda Qiu, “Does Vladimir Putin kill journalists?” PunditFact, January 4, 2016, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2016/jan/04/does-vladimir-putin-kill-journalists/.


[17] This tally was achieved by combining data from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Glasnost Defense Foundation. [Ibid.]


[18] “Freedom of the Press 2017: Press Freedom's Dark Horizon,” Freedom House, April 2017, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTP_2017_booklet_FINAL_April28.pdf.


[19] Linda Qiu, “Does Vladimir Putin kill journalists?” PunditFact, January 4, 2016, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2016/jan/04/does-vladimir-putin-kill-journalists/.


[20] Andrew Buncombe and Borzou Daragahi, “Trump says Saudi crown prince ‘may or may not’ have known about Khashoggi killing as he praises ‘steadfast’ ally,” The Independent, November 20, 2018, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/khashoggi-killing-trump-saudi-crown-prince-journalist-murder-mohammed-bin-salman-latest-a8643576.html.


[21] Ibid.


[22] Henry Austin and Chris Stevenson, “Jamal Khashoggi: CIA ‘concludes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered killing of journalist,’” The Independent, November 17, 2018, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/jamal-khashoggi-murder-cia-saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-order-a8638181.html.


[23] “Freedom of the Press 2017: Press Freedom's Dark Horizon,” Freedom House, April 2017, Accessed on December 30, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTP_2017_booklet_FINAL_April28.pdf.




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