As Twitter lit up with the news, the Trump White House moved to downplay it.
Here's the problem with that denial: context.
Although Trump has been in office just over a month, he and his top aides have openly feuded with the media, casting those tasked with covering him as “the opposition party” and the “enemy,” among other things.
On Thursday, Trump's chief strategist, Steven K. Bannon, issued a not-so-veiled threat to the media during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “It's going to get worse every day for the media,” Bannon said. “If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.”
Less than 24 hours later Trump himself was on the CPAC stage and dedicated the opening 15 minutes of his remarks to a takedown of the media. Here's a sample:
A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.Because they have no sources, they just make 'em up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said, “Nine people have confirmed.” There're no nine people. I don't believe there was one or two people. Nine people.
The message — if you are really bad at reading the signs — is that Trump and the people who support him believe they are at war with the media, plain and simple. It's beyond an adversarial relationship. It's a desire on their part to extinguish what they believe to be the corporate-controlled, liberal media once and for all.
And, this isn't simply something that has emerged since Trump moved into the White House. During his campaign, Trump not only banned certain outlets from attending his campaign events — including The Washington Post — but reveled in those prohibitions, bragging to audiences about who he had kept out that week.
It's into that bubbling cauldron that this latest episode involving Spicer lands. And the adage of “where's there smoke, there's fire” seems to fit nicely here. There can be only so many misunderstandings or differences of opinion before reasonable people conclude that this White House is working to fundamentally alter the way in which the press corps interacts with it.
From a political perspective, it makes sense for Trump to villainize the press, since the media is a stand-in for virtually everything that Trump supporters dislike about Washington specifically and “elites” more generally. But from a healthy democracy perspective, the attempts to change the rules — or turn the daily interactions between the president and the media into a game of favorites — is a very dangerous thing.
Don't take my word for it. Take Spicer's. Here's what he said to Politico in December: “We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government that that is something that you can't ban an entity from — conservative, liberal or otherwise. That's what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”