‘That’s how dictators get started’: McCain, critics blast Trump’s view of the media as ‘the enemy’

Critics on both sides of the aisle are blasting President Trump’s assertion that the media is “the enemy of the American people” — and comparing his escalated attack on the press to that of a dictator.

“That’s how dictators get started,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview that aired on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “They get started by suppressing a free press. In other words, a consolidation of power. When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.”

McCain stopped short of calling Trump one.

“I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator,” the senator said. “I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press,” McCain explained. “And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time.”

“I hate the press,” McCain said, half-jokingly. “I hate you, especially. But the fact is we need you.”

On Friday, Trump tweeted that the “fake news media” — specifically the New York Times, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN — is “the enemy” of the American people.

“This is something that you hear tin-pot dictators say when they want to control all of the information,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “It’s not something you’ve ever heard a president of the United States say — not even Nixon went there. And it is deeply concerning. I hope it is repudiated by people from both parties, because this is not America.”

Like McCain, Schiff warned that the Trump administration is flirting with authoritarianism.

“I do think there’s a risk of that,” said Schiff, who was in Munich. “I think John McCain is exactly right. And I think what we’re confronting now is a ‘new war of ideas.’ It’s not communism versus capitalism, but it is authoritarianism versus democracy and representative government. And that’s a threat that here in Europe they feel acutely, they’ve seen their countries interfered with, bombarded by cyberattacks, by Russian propaganda — indeed, by Russian troops.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., disagreed, saying McCain’s critique of Trump’s attack as inching toward a dictatorship is personal.

“I think Sen. McCain’s perspective is colored by his disagreements with President Trump on foreign policy,” Paul said on ABC. “If I were to look at foreign policy, I would say John McCain has been wrong on just about everything over the last four decades.”

“Everything that he says about the president is colored by his own personal dispute he has got running with President Trump,” Paul added. “And it should be taken with a grain of salt.”

In an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Trump’s attack on the press should be taken “seriously.”

“I think that the problem we’ve got is that we’re talking about bogus stories like the one in the New York Times, that we’ve had constant contact with Russian officials,” Priebus said, referring to the newspaper’s bombshell report. “The next day, the Wall Street Journal had a story that the intel community was not giving the president a full intelligence briefing. Both stories grossly inaccurate, overstated, overblown, and it’s total garbage.”

“So we spend, you know, 48 hours on bogus stories,” Priebus added. “And the American people suffer. So I do think it’s a problem.”

Both the Times and the Journal stand by their reporting.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Abu Dhabi, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he disagrees with Trump’s characterization of the media as “the enemy.”

“I don’t have any issues with the press myself,” Mattis said.

When pressed by “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson, Priebus refused to call the media “the enemy.”

“If the theory is that the press is supposed to be a free forum of information to speak to the American people, I think it ought to be accurate,” Priebus responded. “I think that the media should stop with this unnamed source stuff, put names on a piece of paper, and print it. If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed.”

On Saturday night after conducting the interview with Priebus, Dickerson took to Twitter to highlight a 2012 tweet from Trump touting anonymous sources.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Priebus was grilled by host Chris Wallace, who accused the administration of trying to mirror Russia and North Korea in its relationship with the press.

“We don’t have a state-run media in this country,” Wallace said. “That’s what they have in dictatorships.”

Priebus complained that a month into the Trump presidency, there’s been more coverage of scandals than accomplishments.

“The next 20 hours is all about Russian spies, how no one gets along, how nothing’s happening,” Priebus said. “Give me a break.”

“You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did,” Wallace shot back. “Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time, but I gotta say, he never said we were an enemy of the people.”

Preibus’ comments echoed those of his boss.

“We are going to expose them for what they are,” Trump said of the news media at a raucous rally in Melbourne, Fla., on Saturday, accusing the press of making up sources. “They have their own agenda, and their agenda is not your agenda.”

At one point, Trump even quoted Thomas Jefferson, who was irritated by the media’s coverage of his presidency.

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” Trump quoted Jefferson as saying on June 14, 1807.

A man dressed as Abraham Lincoln listens during a mock funeral for the American presidency in New York City on Saturday. (Bria Webb/Reuters)
A man dressed as Abraham Lincoln attends a mock funeral for the American presidency in New York City on Saturday. (Bria Webb/Reuters)

But critics quickly shared a different Jefferson quote that showcased his respect for press freedom.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” Jefferson once said. “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Following Trump’s tweet Friday, members of the media took to Twitter to showcase examples of important work their colleagues have done with the hastag “#NotTheEnemy.”

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