I’ll never forget the moment, while covering the Republican National Convention in 2016, that I saw the T-shirt:

“Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required,” it read in bold letters. Stacks of them were for sale on the streets outside the Cleveland arena where Donald Trump would soon get his party’s nomination.

I felt slightly sick, watching people laugh at the words about lynching reporters — and, in some cases, buy the shirt as a souvenir.

What I didn’t realize then was that this ugliness would get much, much worse.

The latest is the playing of a horrific doctored video — depicting a fake President Trump violently killing journalists and his political opponents — at a pro-Trump conference last week at the president’s Miami-area resort.

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The Trump campaign says it didn’t produce the video, and I believe that.

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And it issued a mild statement about not condoning violence. That’s harder to believe.

By now, we all know better.

As a candidate, and then as president, Trump has more than allowed this sentiment to flourish. He has instigated and encouraged it.

He has essentially sided with the Saudi regime after the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post.

He has cozied up to dictators who throw reporters in prison or arrange for their deaths.

He has repeatedly called the press “corrupt” and “the enemy of the people.”

And he has been pleased to hear the chants of “CNN sucks!” at his rallies. In 2017, he even tweeted another fake video that showed him body slamming someone with a CNN logo for a face during a pro-wrestling match.

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The White House says Trump “strongly condemns” the video.

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It’s pretty late for that.

Here’s what the video looks like, according to a Washington Post article:

“Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) screams as his head is lit on fire. Former president Barack Obama is smashed face-first like a battering ram into what appears to be part of a wooden pulpit. People with their faces replaced by the logos of news organizations such as CNN, NBC, Politico and HuffPost are brutally stabbed and shot.

“At the center of the bloody rampage unfolding in the ‘Church of Fake News’ is a man dressed in a dark pinstripe suit. President Trump’s head is superimposed on his body.”

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Trump’s disparagement of the press has infected not only American society but anti-press forces around the world.

It’s no wonder that America’s press-freedom ranking is sinking among the nations of the world in a Reporters Without Borders study.

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And it’s no wonder that Cesar Sayoc — who pleaded guilty to 65 felony charges after sending pipe bombs to news organizations, including CNN, last year — described Trump rallies as his “new found drug.”

The Trump campaign’s initial low-key distancing of the president from this video reminds me of his initial response to last year’s massacre of five staffers of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis.

He tweeted “thoughts and prayers” and gave a thumbs-up sign and a dismissive wave to reporters asking for his comments.

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Eventually, he issued a more serious statement, but it felt late, canned and out of sync with what he obviously believes.

Presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke did quite a bit better, immediately responding: “The video isn’t funny. It will get people killed.”

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A vital part of what makes America great is free speech. So I’m not in favor of yanking threatening T-shirts off the street or punishing people who get their sick pleasure by making horrific memes and videos.

But I am in favor of looking reality in the face.

The president of the United States didn’t create this problem, any more than he created the video.

But, in many, many ways, he has unleashed a vile hatred of journalists that is playing out before our eyes. And it couldn’t be more dangerous.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan

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