The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump White House’s increasingly authoritarian response to criticism

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Oct. 20 defended Chief of Staff John F. Kelly's attacks on Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). (Video: Reuters, Photo: Andrew Harnik/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

This post has been updated.

Yet again, the White House has declared itself to be above question.

On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders bristled at attempts to fact-check Chief of Staff John F. Kelly's comments about Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). But rather than make a compelling case based on the facts, she decided to posit that a four-star general should be immune to debate.

“If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that's up to you, but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate,” Sanders said.

Not just a bad idea, mind you, but “highly inappropriate.” The inescapable conclusion here: According to Sanders, Kelly can say just about anything he wants, and the media should just accept it as fact.

Whatever you think of the White House or President Trump, that's a remarkably authoritarian argument to make. And it's hardly the first time the White House has gone down this road. It has suggested dissent is unhelpful — even unpatriotic — several times:

  • Last week, after Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) tweeted that the White House had become an “adult day care center” and suggested Trump's threats to foreign countries could lead to World War III, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said that this was not okay. “I find tweets like this to be incredibly irresponsible,” she said, adding: “It adds to the insulting that the mainstream media and the president’s detractors — almost a year after this election, they still can’t accept the election results. It adds to their ability and their cover to speak about a president of the United States, the president of the United States, in ways that no president should be talked about.”
  • Responding to the same events, former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon said: “It's totally unacceptable in a time of war. We have troops in Afghanistan. In the Northwest Pacific and Korea, we have a major problem that could be like World War I. In the South China Sea, in the Persian Gulf, we have American lives at risk every day.”
  • Back in June, Conway said more plainly that critical coverage of Trump wasn't “patriotic”: “It doesn't help the American people to have a president covered in this light. I'm sorry, it's neither productive nor patriotic. The toxicity is over the top.”
  • In February, when the administration was pushing its entry ban, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said the president's prerogatives on foreign policy were absolute. “The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned,” Miller said.
  • On a smaller scale, Sanders said last month that ESPN host Jemele Hill calling Trump a “white supremacist” is a “fireable offense.”

The roots of this whole attitude were evident long ago, when numerous reports indicated that Trump thought his coverage would improve once he was president. The Associated Press reported that “two people close to Trump said he expected his coverage to turn more favorable once he took office.”

That's not how it works, and it totally misunderstands news media's role in a democracy. Yet here we are today, and the White House still thinks it's above this kind of criticism. It still thinks the president should “not be questioned” in certain ways — and apparently that Kelly should not be questioned at all.

What's obviously hypocritical here as that a lot of these criticisms pale in comparison to what Trump has registered about his opponents. He has questioned the war hero status of John McCain. He has attacked a Gold Star family. He called his primary foe a liar — repeatedly. He called his Democratic opponent a criminal who should be jailed. And most importantly, he was one of the most vocal critics of the last sitting president, even suggesting he was a fraud whose presidency was illegitimate.

All of that was okay, but suggesting President Trump is volatile and dangerous is not, apparently. The undermining of Barack Obama's legitimacy was apparently okay . . . because he deserved it? If Hillary Clinton had become president, we're to believe that Trump would stop calling her a criminal because she would then be the president? If you believe that, then I have some things to sell you.

It's not only a double standard; it's a willful campaign to suggest that even valid criticisms are beyond the pale if they undermine Trump. And in the case of Kelly, they are arguing it's beyond the pale even if it doesn't undermine him.

The White House isn't disputing the criticisms; it's suggesting they shouldn't even be tolerated and aren't good for the country. That's a stunning posture for any White House to take.