First, that the role of the free press is to hold the powerful to account. And second, that President Trump’s attacks on the news media have dangerous consequences, both at home and around the world.
In a remarkable new exchange, the publisher of the New York Times pressed Trump at length on both these points. The results were startling. Trump displayed only the dimmest awareness that his attacks on the press might be having severely negative effects, while repeatedly reverting into a tone that alternated between megalomaniacal self-congratulation and self-imagined victimization, and largely refusing to accept responsibility for those consequences.
SULZBERGER: As I’ve talked to my colleagues around the globe … particularly working in countries where a free press is an already tenuous thing, they say that they are increasingly of the belief that your rhetoric is creating a climate in which dictators and tyrants are able to employ your words in suppressing the free press …
TRUMP: Would you say more so now than over the last five years?
TRUMP: Right now? I mean, more so now than even a year ago?
SULZBERGER: Yes. And I think —
TRUMP: I’m not happy to hear that.
Trump seems dimly curious about the global impact of his rhetoric, and allows that he is “not happy” to hear that dictators and tyrants are employing it to suppress the free press. That’s a start, right? Sort of. Then comes this:
SULZBERGER: The United States and the occupants of your office have historically been the greatest defenders of the free press, and —
TRUMP: And I think I am, too. I want to be. I want to be.
Trump hears a variation on the word “great” applied to his predecessors, and his immediate instinct is to crave similar recognition. So he describes himself as a great defender of the free press, before catching himself and remembering that he should make his defense conditional.
Sulzberger presses Trump directly on whether he is “aware of these broad consequences” that his attacks on the press are having around the world. Trump questions this premise, then continues:
TRUMP: I do notice that people are declaring more and more fake news. ... I even see it in other countries. I don’t necessarily attribute that to me. I think I can attribute the term to me. I think I was the one that started using it.
Trump recognizes that he’s inspiring international imitators but, despite having just been informed that those imitators are dictators and tyrants, nonetheless treats this as a sign of the power of his branding. He does display a moment of modesty, in declining to take credit for the global use of the phrase “fake news,” before praising himself for inventing it.
Then Sulzberger presses harder on the consequences this is having:
SULZBERGER: The phrase “fake news,” you’re exactly right, it has been embraced globally. And several countries have actually banned fake news. But it was a technique to actually ban an independent media. ...
TRUMP: Right, I’ve seen that. I don’t like that. ... I do think it’s very bad for a country when the news is not accurately portrayed.
A bit later, Trump explains the sort of inaccurate coverage that troubles him. “I do believe I’m a victim of that, honestly,” he says. “I don’t know why. Because I really think I’m doing a great job."
So once again, Trump grudgingly suggests it might be a problem that his powerful branding has been used to suppress independent media, before slipping right back into claiming that the real problem is … fake news. Particularly in the form of unflattering stories about him.
At this point, Sulzberger tries to get Trump to understand that the press’s role is to scrutinize the powerful:
SULZBERGER: That chair right there that you’re sitting in is the most powerful seat on earth. And it comes with scrutiny and questions. ...
TRUMP: I don’t mind a bad story if it’s true. … I’ve had bad stories — very bad stories — where I thought it was true. And I would never complain. But when you get really bad stories where it’s not true, then you sort of say, “that’s unfair.”
If Trump thinks a bad story about him is true, then he’s fine with that story. It’s just that most of the bad stories about him aren’t true, and he gets to say whether any given story is true or not.
A bit later, Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who was also present, asks Trump: “What do you see the role of the free press as? What do you think the press does?”
“It describes and should describe accurately what’s going on,” Trump replies, adding that accurate and fair news coverage is “a very, very important and beautiful thing.”
And what might that look like? A bit later, he reveals what’s been nagging at him all along:
TRUMP: I came from Jamaica, Queens, Jamaica Estates, and I became president of the United States. I’m sort of entitled to a great story — just one, from my newspaper.
And there you have it. Trump is “entitled” to media recognition of the greatness of his ascension to the presidency, and he appears genuinely puzzled that it hasn’t been forthcoming, just as he had previously expressed puzzlement that the press has declined to accurately reflect the great job he is doing.
A few months ago, Fox’s Chris Wallace pushed Trump at length on these matters, and he similarly declared that he’s perfectly happy to accept negative news coverage of himself, provided it’s accurate, while also essentially asserting that only he gets to say when negative coverage actually is accurate, which is rarely to never.
As Jonathan Chait commented at the time: “By his circular logic, any attempt to question Trump is inherently false, since the act of challenging Trump reveals the source to be dishonest.”
In this latest case, we saw Trump’s circular logic go global, before rebounding back to where it always ends up: Sure, it might be a bad thing that dictators and tyrants are taking inspiration from his attacks on the independent press, but this might not be happening if there weren’t so much fake news. Exhibit A being, of course, the fake-news treatment of him.