Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

The Trump White House's increasingly authoritarian response to criticism

October 21, 2017 at 8:57 AM

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Oct. 20 defended Chief of Staff John F. Kelly's attacks on Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) and called it "highly inappropriate" to debate with "a four-star Marine general." (Reuters)

This post has been updated.

Yet again, the White House has declared itself to be above question.

On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders bristled at attempts to fact-check Chief of Staff John F. Kelly's comments about Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). But rather than make a compelling case based on the facts, she decided to posit that a four-star general should be immune to debate.

“If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that's up to you, but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate,” Sanders said.

Not just a bad idea, mind you, but “highly inappropriate.” The inescapable conclusion here: According to Sanders, Kelly can say just about anything he wants, and the media should just accept it as fact.

Whatever you think of the White House or President Trump, that's a remarkably authoritarian argument to make. And it's hardly the first time the White House has gone down this road. It has suggested dissent is unhelpful — even unpatriotic — several times:

The roots of this whole attitude were evident long ago, when numerous reports indicated that Trump thought his coverage would improve once he was president. The Associated Press reported that “two people close to Trump said he expected his coverage to turn more favorable once he took office.”

That's not how it works, and it totally misunderstands news media's role in a democracy. Yet here we are today, and the White House still thinks it's above this kind of criticism. It still thinks the president should “not be questioned” in certain ways — and apparently that Kelly should not be questioned at all.

What's obviously hypocritical here as that a lot of these criticisms pale in comparison to what Trump has registered about his opponents. He has questioned the war hero status of John McCain. He has attacked a Gold Star family. He called his primary foe a liar — repeatedly. He called his Democratic opponent a criminal who should be jailed. And most importantly, he was one of the most vocal critics of the last sitting president, even suggesting he was a fraud whose presidency was illegitimate.

All of that was okay, but suggesting President Trump is volatile and dangerous is not, apparently. The undermining of Barack Obama's legitimacy was apparently okay . . . because he deserved it? If Hillary Clinton had become president, we're to believe that Trump would stop calling her a criminal because she would then be the president? If you believe that, then I have some things to sell you.

It's not only a double standard; it's a willful campaign to suggest that even valid criticisms are beyond the pale if they undermine Trump. And in the case of Kelly, they are arguing it's beyond the pale even if it doesn't undermine him.

The White House isn't disputing the criticisms; it's suggesting they shouldn't even be tolerated and aren't good for the country. That's a stunning posture for any White House to take.


Aaron Blake is senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native, he has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Hill newspaper.

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