Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Free-speech conservatives, this is your call to arms

August 16, 2018 at 6:40 PM

President Trump. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

To all those supposed constitutional conservatives out there, consider this your call to arms: The First Amendment is under direct attack, and this time from a much more powerful foe than misguided college freshmen.

By whom I mean: the ostensible leader of the free world.

Again and again, President Trump has used the weight of his office and the broader federal government to inflict financial damage upon critics, whistleblowers, journalists and peaceful protesters for exercising their rights to free speech.

Trump’s most recent salvo involves former CIA director John Brennan. During his long career in intelligence, Brennan briefed Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Which makes his fierce criticism of Trump, and his characterization of Trump’s Helsinki performance as “treasonous,” all the more biting.

Such comments led Trump to revoke Brennan’s security clearance Wednesday. The administration said Brennan no longer needed clearance because it didn’t plan to call on him for consultations. But high-level clearances are valuable for private-sector work as well.

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Columnist Christine Emba argues tech companies are well within their right to boot the InfoWars founder off their platforms and aren't violating his First Amendment rights. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

In other words, this was about shutting Brennan’s mouth by going after his wallet. 

Such actions appear unprecedented. More may be in the offing, however, given that the president is considering stripping clearances from at least nine other former high-level officials.

And that is but one way Trump has tried to silence critics just this week.

A day earlier, Trump’s campaign said it had filed an arbitration action against Omarosa Manigault Newman alleging that the former White House aide broke a 2016 nondisclosure agreement by publishing her recent tell-all book.

One need not be a fan of the “Apprentice” villain to understand this as an attempt to visit financial injury upon yet another critic — and, by extension, to intimidate other campaign and White House alumni, who also signed likely unenforceable confidentiality agreements.

That the party bringing the claim here is technically a campaign, rather than, say, the Justice Department, doesn’t matter. The First Amendment is supposed to protect those critical of their government, including critics of its highest officeholder, from political retribution. And political retribution laundered through an election campaign at the president’s instruction is retribution all the same.

 Elsewhere — again, in recent days — the president and his minions have called the press the enemy of the people and the opposition party. Previously they have blacklisted reporters and entire news outlets (including The Post) whose questions Trump disliked. When unhappy with Post coverage in particular, Trump has threatened government action against Amazon in an apparent attempt to financially punish its chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who independently owns the paper.

Journalists and media owners are hardly the only ones whose job or financial security Trump has targeted from his bully pulpit. He called for the firing of National Football League players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. NFL owners, in a secretly recorded meeting in October, expressed concern about the president’s impact on their bottom line.

Curiously, Republican politicians and conservative pundits who call themselves staunch defenders of the Constitution have allowed, and at times encouraged, the president to run roughshod over the First Amendment.

Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), John Neely Kennedy (La.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) celebrated Trump’s revocation of Brennan’s security clearance.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee oversaw a hearing titled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses,” refused to condemn Trump’s calls for the firing of NFL players engaged in peaceful protest. Instead, in September, he attacked the media for giving the “false impression” that Trump spent too much time attacking the NFL.

Republican lawmakers have likewise done precious little to push back against Trump’s attacks on a free press. The toothless Senate resolution adopted by unanimous consent Thursday affirming that “the press is not the enemy of the people” did not mention Trump at all.

And who can blame these lawmakers?

Polls in the past couple of years have shown that pluralities and, quite often, majorities of Republicans say that they, too, consider the media the enemy of the people; believe that the president should have the authority to close news outlets that he believes behave badly; and favor firing NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem and stripping citizenship from anyone who burns the flag.

Nonetheless: If Republican lawmakers actually give a damn about upholding our most cherished democratic values, now is the time to stand up and fight — and not to be intimidated, whether by the president or his supporters, into silence.

Read more:

David Ignatius: Trump just took us another step closer to the abyss

William H. McRaven: Revoke my security clearance, too, Mr. President

Jennifer Rubin: If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t sue people to shut up

Greg Sargent: Trump is leading a ‘hate movement’ against the media

Dana Milbank: Journalists are playing into Trump’s hand


Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, politics and culture, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times.

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