“If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator,” George W. Bush joked before taking office. For President Trump, the sentiment, and the frustration with all the messy components of democracy that keep the president from doing whatever he wants, are no laughing matter.
We were reminded of this when Trump tweeted this morning that it might be “appropriate” to challenge the “licence” of NBC News, because of the “Fake News” it is allegedly pushing. But what would happen if he actually tried something like this?
Trump has long made his contempt for democratic accountability clear, from “so-called” judges who think they have the right to tell him what the Constitution requires, to arcane legislative rules that prevent him from getting bills passed, and above all to media outlets that don’t properly celebrate and glorify him for all the fabulousness he so generously bestows upon the American public.
But as disturbing as Trump’s authoritarian impulses are, we may be protected from the worst abuses he would like to carry out, both by our democratic institutions and by Trump’s own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence. Yes, his desire to be a dictator is horrifying, but it would be far worse if he were not such a bumbling fool.
Today’s tweet is a nice illustration of this:
There are two logical reactions one should have to have to this bleat of rage. The first is that it is a loathsome attack on the most fundamental of American values: The president of the United States is proposing to silence a television network (and perhaps more than one) because it aired a story that displeased him. The second, however, is that even if Trump wanted to remove their broadcast license, he couldn’t.
That’s because NBC doesn’t actually have a broadcast license. You see, broadcast licenses are not given to networks but to individual stations. Despite his experience in the television industry, Trump seems unaware of how this works.
NBC does own 28 local NBC and Telemundo stations, but that covers only a portion of all NBC affiliates. Trump could try to get the licenses of the stations NBC owns revoked — and it should be said that in the past a few liberals have suggested that the same should be done to Fox’s network-owned stations — but he wouldn’t have many means at his disposal beyond his Twitter feed.
That’s because the Federal Communications Commission is an independent agency. The president appoints the members of the commission, but he’s not their boss. He doesn’t have the authority to order them to do anything, including revoke a license. He’s not even allowed to fire them (though he can remove the chairman from the chairmanship and give it to another member of the commission).
I won’t bother going into the lengthy and rare process for revoking a license. But I will note that while it’s theoretically possible for a station to lose its license for falsifying the news, the commission’s position is that it won’t even investigate such an accusation unless there is specific evidence “such as testimony or other documentation, from individuals with direct personal knowledge that a licensee or its management engaged in the intentional falsification of the news.”
Needless to say, “The president didn’t like that report” wouldn’t qualify.
We know that Trump has often expressed admiration for dictators like Vladimir Putin, who intimidate and even murder journalists who are critical of their regimes. But when it comes to Trump, we are to a great degree protected by his lack of vision. Instead of mounting some kind of concerted, thought-out effort to undermine the media, he confines himself to whining about “fake news,” which he defines as any story he doesn’t like. While he has successfully persuaded many of his supporters to mistrust any information they don’t agree with and feel hatred toward journalists, none of it has had its desired effect of producing more favorable coverage.
During the campaign, Trump said: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” But the idea was so ludicrous that even his own supporters didn’t take it seriously. Indeed, he hasn’t bothered to propose any legislation to change laws on libel or anything else related to the freedom of the press.
That fits a pattern in which every time Trump suggests some kind of practical move against the media, it’s a joke. You may recall that after the New York Times published stories relating the accounts of women who said Trump groped them against their will, he threatened to sue the paper. He never followed through, perhaps because if he had, the suit would have been tossed out of court before his lawyers had a chance to clear their throats. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Harvey Weinstein, who with Trump and Roger Ailes has formed an odious triumvirate of portly powerful men accused of atrocious sexual assaults, is also making empty threats to sue the Times.
As unprecedented as Trump’s relentless and angry attack on the media is, it’s important to realize that unless he wants to break the law by doing something like ordering wiretaps of reporters (as Nixon did), there’s not much he can do. He could create an enemies list and instruct his aides not to speak to certain journalists. But given how incredibly leaky his White House is, they’d probably ignore him. He can try to discredit certain news organizations, which he has done. But you may have noticed that the main targets of his ire (CNN and the Times) are doing quite well in the Trump era. He has the power of the bully pulpit, but at least in this area, he’s finding it awfully hard to put his authoritarian impulses into practice.
Which of course will only make him more enraged as he turns on cable news or picks up the paper and fails to find the praise he seeks. At least he’s got “Fox & Friends” to make him feel better.