President Trump took his long-running attacks against CNN to a new level on Monday by suggesting in tweets that a consumer boycott of its parent company, AT&T, could force “big changes” at the news organization.
The comment, which Trump tweeted in response to seeing CNN coverage while traveling in London during a European tour, fueled criticisms that the president was using his power inappropriately to intimidate critics.
Historians struggled to cite an equivalent threat even from presidents such as Richard Nixon renowned for their hostility toward the press. Less democratic nations with more tenuous press freedoms often use government regulatory power, criminal investigations or tax audits to punish news organizations seen as providing unflattering coverage, but past U.S. presidents rarely have taken such public shots at the businesses of the owners of major American news organizations, historians said.
“For a president to call for punitive action against a corporation in an effort to shape news coverage is, to say the least, highly unusual,” said presidential biographer Jon Meacham. “It’s the kind of behavior more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, not democratic ones.”
Both AT&T, which acquired CNN in last year’s merger with Time Warner, and CNN declined to comment. The White House did not respond to requests for further comment on the president’s views or on the reaction from historians and critics.
Trump frequently has criticized major American news organizations, including The Washington Post and the New York Times, and taken punitive actions against journalists. Trump also has repeatedly criticized and mocked The Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, and attacked the technology giant he founded, Amazon.
“He wants to sanction — and he wants the public more importantly to sanction — news organizations that produce news coverage that he doesn’t like,” said Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian and a CNN contributor. “The frequency and intensity of it is unusual.”
Trump has displayed particular animus toward CNN. He tweeted a video in 2017 that showed him tackling and pummeling a person with a CNN logo superimposed over his head.
The president also has close ties to CNN rival Fox News, whose commentators often are quoted by Trump in tweets and whose former employees have occupied key positions in Trump’s White House.
When AT&T sought to acquire Time Warner, then the parent company of CNN, Trump repeatedly complained about the deal, publicly and privately. He instructed aides such as Gary Cohn, John F. Kelly and Rob Porter to call the Justice Department to block the deal, people familiar with the matter have told The Post. The events were first reported by the New Yorker.
No call was made to the Justice Department, one of the officials familiar with the matter said, and Trump was told that the decision had to be free of political interference from the White House. People who heard the comments said it was sometimes unclear if he was giving an official order or just venting.
The Justice Department, however, did seek to block the $85 billion merger over allegations that the deal violated federal antitrust laws before losing in court to AT&T. Department officials denied that their decisions were influenced by the White House, but Trump continued to bring up the subject repeatedly and bragged to aides that his attacks on CNN had driven down their ratings.
Gene Kimmelman, who was a Justice Department antitrust official under President Barack Obama, said Trump’s tweets raised questions about whether the president’s views of news organizations were affecting how the administration handles enforcement and regulatory matters.
“For the president to try to tilt the marketplace in favor of one outlet or another is dangerous to our democracy and the marketplace of ideas,” said Kimmelman, now president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.
Trump’s tweets had no obvious immediate impact on the value of AT&T, which is based in Dallas and is considered one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, with more than 260,000 employees. The company’s stock ended the trading day up nearly 1.7 percent on a weak day overall for Wall Street.
Industry analyst Craig Moffett said AT&T will probably weather the political turbulence without trouble, in part because customers rarely change cellular services. He said Wall Street once would have been worried far more about a hostile tweet from the president.
“AT&T’s stock would have swooned in response,” Moffett said. “Now, investors, and just about everyone else, simply roll their eyes and go about their day. The stock market’s yawn in response to this morning’s tweet tells you everything you need to know.”
Historians looking for parallels to Trump attacks on CNN listed a range of actions by presidents lashing out against news organizations.
President John F. Kennedy, for example, once expressed his ire at the New York Herald Tribune by canceling the White House’s subscription and, for a time, refusing to read the paper. Nixon’s notorious “Enemies List” included numerous journalists, but his harshest criticisms were reserved for comments made privately to aides — though some of these were also captured by the White House audio-taping system and unearthed later by historians.
Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, also infamously threatened the publisher of The Post, Katharine Graham, during a phone interview with reporter Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal in 1972. When Bernstein sought comment from Mitchell about a story planned for the next day’s paper, he said, “All that crap, you’re putting it in the paper? It’s all been denied. Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”
Graham, who died in 2001, noted in her autobiography, “Personal History,” that the threat, while not specific, came at a time when The Washington Post Co. was seeking the renewal of television licenses in Florida. Two of them were challenged, she wrote, causing “potentially devastating” impacts on the company, whose stock fell sharply. White House tapes captured Nixon that same year saying The Post company would have “damnable, damnable problems” winning license renewals from the Federal Communications Commission.
Trump’s attacks on news organizations and their owners are distinguished, in part, by their highly public nature. When the National Enquirer published intimate photographs and text messages between Bezos and a woman he was dating, the president tweeted, “So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”
Trump also sharply criticized Postal Service deals that give Amazon, like other major online retailers, discounts on shipping its products. The Post reported Saturday that the Federal Trade Commission has been given jurisdiction over Amazon, which might suggest greater antitrust scrutiny of the company. Other major technology companies have also come under fire from Trump over antitrust and other issues.
The more important issue, historians and critics of Trump say, is the potential for eroding democratic norms through presidential power.
“The president’s call for supporters to boycott AT&T, the parent company of CNN, is completely unprecedented in the United States. It is simply a continuation of his efforts to discredit critical journalism and dismantle public trust in the media for scrutinizing his presidency,” said Noni Ghani, a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, a group advocating for press freedoms worldwide. “This is the sort of behavior we’d expect from the leader of a country where the democratic value of the free press is not respected.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of authoritarianism at New York University, said undemocratic rulers such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán regularly use state power and the bully pulpit to force news organizations — especially influential television networks — into submission.
“Trump’s call for a boycott is very much in this tradition,” Ben-Ghiat said.
Trump also has used Twitter to berate companies that don’t fall in line with his agenda. He has threatened Ford and General Motors for not moving all auto production to the United States and criticized Harley-Davidson for plans to shift some production overseas in response to the administration’s imposition of tariffs.
The motorcycle manufacturer estimated that Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs would cost it $20 million, and that retaliatory tariffs could tack on an additional $45 million. Though the company said the move had no effect on U.S. jobs, some Harley owners vowed to boycott, CNBC reported.
Trump tweeted his approval: “Many @harleydavidson owners plan to boycott the company if manufacturing moves overseas. Great! Most other companies are coming in our direction, including Harley competitors. A really bad move! U.S. will soon have a level playing field, or better.”
Harley-Davidson sales slumped 13 percent in the months after Trump’s boycott call.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the the Federal Communications Commission has been given jurisdiction over Amazon. It is the Federal Trade Commission.