This post has been updated with the latest news.
If I'm reading this right, it looks like Maine's governor just admitted to doing something that the Russians are being investigated for: making up news to confuse reporters. And then he took it a step further by wishing news never existed.
“I just love to sit in my office and make up ways so they’ll write these stupid stories because they are just so stupid, it’s awful,” Gov. Paul LePage (R) told local radio WGAN-AM on Thursday. The comments were first picked up nationally by the Associated Press. If that wasn't shocking enough, he also said this: “The sooner the print press goes away, the better society will be.”
Whoa, what? Did the governor of a state just admit to lying to reporters, specifically for the purpose to confuse them about what the news is? Then wish those reporters never existed? (LePage's communications team did not respond to a request for comment.)
We get it. Politicians bash the media. But what LePage said takes the vitriol to another level. Not even the biggest critics of the media right now, like President Trump, have said something like this, at least not directly.
And what LePage said is a shot straight at media's heart. Just like intelligence officials say Russia tried to make up news about the U.S. election system to undermine people's faith in democracy, LePage just said something that could undermine people's faith in what they read in the news (more than it already is). If politicians lie to the media to mess with journalists, then even when the media quotes them accurately, can you trust what you read? It's like an upside-down version of state news.
(Update: On Thursday night, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said someone tried to dupe her by sending her a bogus story about Russia collusion.)
Let's back up for some context.
LePage was explaining that he makes up “ways” for reporters to “write these stupid stories” as he was denying news reports that he planned to leave the state during the government shutdown. (Maine was under a partial government shutdown — its first in some 25 years — for three days over the Fourth of July holiday after LePage rejected a budget the state legislature sent him.)
During the shutdown, two Republican senators told the Portland Press Herald that LePage said he was going to leave the state on vacation. In fact, the senators said, LePage called them to his office to tell them.
One was state Senate President Michael Thibodeau (R). If LePage left for a vacation, it would mean that the shutdown would last for at least as long as he was gone, because he wouldn't be around to sign a budget. LePage ended up signing a deal that night, July 3.
Anyway. LePage's spokeswoman denied that he planned to go on vacation, the senators reaffirmed what they heard, and it became a he-said, he-said thing. On Friday, the Portland Press Herald got a voicemail of LePage saying he did plan to go out of town.
“He could not have been more clear that he was leaving tomorrow morning for about 10 days,” Sen. Roger Katz (R) told the Herald's Noel K. Gallagher. “There was no nuance and no ambiguity about that.”
LePage later told local TV that he meant his “pen” was taking a vacation from signing any bill that increased taxes for Maine hotels.
That's the context. Here's my attempt at why the governor of a state would feel like he needs to cop to making up news after all that (or why he feel like he needs to make up news in the first place).
There are two likely scenarios.
LePage isn't the first politician to deny a news report about him. But two senators of his own party claimed that LePage definitely said what the media was reporting, so perhaps LePage felt that he had no other option than to say he was lying to those senators. And then LePage framed it as a roundabout way to lie to the media.
The second scenario is simpler: LePage believes that bashing the media is a powerful political tool. (Hmm … where have we seen that play out?)
But even before Trump was on the scene, LePage had a looong history of going to war with the state's journalists. LePage, who has been in office since 2011 and is term-limited in 2018, once said that he'd like to shoot a local cartoonist. At one point in 2016, when LePage was considering resigning in the wake of a series of obscene, vulgar and offensive comments, LePage swore off the media.
“I will no longer speak to the press ever again after today,” he told reporters. “And I’m serious. Everything will be put into writing. I’m tired of being caught in the gotcha moments.”
So, that didn't happen. Now LePage appears to be saying that he regularly talks to journalists just to mess with them. It's a very weird thing for the head of a state to say, and it's comparable to what the rest of the nation is concerned that the Russians did.