One of the few sustained themes of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been a disdain for the journalists who have covered him.
The Republican nominee has called reporters “dishonest” “lying” “scum.” He’s promised vengeance, vowing to open up libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post. He even claimed Post owner Jeff Bezos used the newspaper to wield political influence so his company, Amazon, would pay less taxes.
“Believe me, if I become president, oh, do they have problems,” Trump warned at a raucous February rally. “They’re going to have such problems.”
The attacks have gone far beyond any conventional standard for how a presidential nominee has treated the press. So what happens to this relationship if Trump wins?
The most charitable answer is that Trump might mellow when not in the crucible of a tough campaign, that his frequent denunciations of the press corps are an act designed to rile up his media-hating supporters.
But that doesn’t make Trump’s behavior any less sinister, especially in the context of his apparent disregard for constitutional norms and his authoritarian leanings. Indeed, if history is a guide, the Times and the Post won’t be the only outlets in Trump’s crosshairs. With executive power at his disposal, and a reputation of retaliation, it is not a stretch to imagine Trump disrupting the press’ traditional ― and vital ― role of covering the White House.
That’s what he did while getting to the doorstep of being elected. As a candidate, Trump shredded the unwritten rules of engagement between politicians and the press, setting a new bar for dishonesty, secrecy and hostility.
He blacklisted news organizations, some of whose reporters were thrown out or patted down at public events. (Even those given press credentials were often penned in). He didn’t fire his campaign manager after he manhandled a reporter, but praised him onstage. He launched unwarranted attacks on individual reporters and threatened news organizations with lawsuits. And he has inspired white nationalists, who have spewed anti-Semitic slurs at journalists online and, increasingly, at rallies.
Trump not only refused to allow his traveling press corps to fly with him as Republican nominee, a break with tradition, but has ditched and mocked them for not keeping up. There is nothing here to give one confidence that he’d let reporters on Air Force One.
Journalists worry a lot about precedent because their access isn’t inscribed by law but hashed out through arrangements with the White House. Each presidential administration tangles with the White House press corps, but in the end, certain traditions are upheld. There’s nothing stopping Trump from deciding not to hold a daily press briefing or kicking media outlets off the White House grounds. His fans would likely love it.
There are presumably limits to what Trump could do as president. Though he’s complained for decades about libel laws, they’re determined at the state, not federal, level. And of course there’s the First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of the press no matter who assumes the Oval Office.
While it’s assumed Trump couldn’t simply jail media adversaries for criticizing him, there are other actions he could take to target the press.
University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner wrote in June that Trump “could direct agencies to use their vast regulatory powers against the companies of executives who have displeased him,” such as Bezos. Trump could also “crack down on journalists who report on national security issues by enforcing federal secrecy laws more aggressively than previous presidents,” he added.
The Obama administration drew condemnation for its aggressive response to leaks, including the Department of Justice’s seizing of journalists’ phone records. The press backlash led to the DOJ creating stricter guidelines for obtaining records.
It’s unclear how a President Trump would respond to such pressure, but candidate Trump seemed unmoved by complaints over access and blacklisting from journalists and press advocacy groups.
Not only could Trump erode press freedom at home, but the Committee to Protect Journalists warned he was an unprecedented threat worldwide. “Any failure of the United States to uphold its own standards emboldens dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own countries,” the group said. “This appears to be of no concern to Trump, who indicated that he has no inclination to challenge governments on press freedom and the treatment of journalists.”
Trump has drawn comparisons to autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and has appeared unbothered by mentions of how they’ve cracked down on free expression.
When an MSNBC host suggested Putin “kills journalists” during a December interview, Trump responded that “at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
And he didn’t criticize Erdogan’s purging of 50,000 perceived opponents following a coup attempt. “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” he said in a July interview.
Erdogan has since shuttered 130 media organizations, including 45 newspapers, prompting The New York Times editorial board last week to ask, “Can Turkey’s Democracy Survive President Erdogan?”
The question after Tuesday may be whether America’s democracy ― or, at least, its commitment to a free press ― could survive President Trump.