Tuesday, September 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened to revoke a non-existent "license" from a television network he doesn't like.

This morning, Trump tweeted this:

A part of this is actually true: NBC News is indeed coming under scrutiny for its handling of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault story, which ultimately ended with journalist Ronan Farrow taking it to the New Yorker

But the implicit threat to "look at their license" is both empty and chilling. Neither Trump nor the FCC has the power to revoke NBC's "license," because only individual local stations have broadcast licenses to revoke. NBC's cable channels do not come under the FCC's jurisdiction. And--at least under the rule of law--even local licenses can't be revoked simply because the President feels a particular news story was not reported quickly enough.

It's not clear if Trump, a former NBC employee, knows that he can't legally order a network shut down.

The real threat is Trump's apparent belief that he should shut down news organizations he doesn't like. He's tried to use the powers of his office to weaken or silence the free press before, as when he tried to force Time Warner to sell CNN in order to get Justice Department approval for a planned merger, or just last week when he threatened to slap regulations on search engines and social media platforms if they didn't change the political tone of their content.

Trump's decision to call attention to the Weinstein coverage is interesting. Many of Trump's own sexual harassment and infidelity scandals were deliberately hidden during the campaign because the National Enquirer bought the rights to them and stored the supporting evidence in a secret safe. David Pecker, the Trump ally and CEO of the Enquirer's parent company who arranged for those deals to be made, has been granted criminal immunity and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents should have at least a remotely accurate idea of what their actual powers are.
  • A man who pays hush money to keep his sex scandals out of the press probably isn't the best person to criticize a lack of investigative vigor in the press.