It was another rage tweet from the president. It landed on a weekend thick with news stories. It aligned with hundreds of previous tweets. It was this:
For all those reasons, “Few paid much attention. Many news organizations, including the Times, determined the accusation wasn’t even worth reporting, a sign of how inured we’ve grown to such rhetorical recklessness,” wrote New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger in a Wall Street Journal op-ed deploring Trump’s campaign against the media. (According to a Times spokeswoman, the op-ed was offered to the Journal because “attacks on press freedom are global and broader than any one news organization.”)
President Trump’s accusation in fact merited a great deal of attention. It came in response to an article by David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth revealing that Trump aides had ramped up “digital incursions” into Russia’s power grid to signal that the United States meant business when it came to Russian interference in its affairs. Aside from the cyberwarfare minutiae, the story carried two critical details: First, officials believed that Trump hadn’t been briefed on the power-grid campaign, perhaps because his subordinates feared that he’d “countermand” the operation. And second, the Times apprised top U.S. officials of its reporting and received assurances that there were no national security concerns about publishing it.
In his op-ed, Sulzberger wrote that the president has crossed a “dangerous line” in moving from “fake news” past “the enemy of the people” to the ultimate form of professional slander:
Treason is the only crime explicitly defined in the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers knew the word’s history as a weapon wielded by tyrants to justify the persecution and execution of enemies. They made its definition immutable—Article III reads: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort”—to ensure that it couldn’t be abused by politicians for self-serving attacks on rivals or critics. The crime is almost never prosecuted, but Mr. Trump has used the word dozens of times.
A chilling line in the piece ponders what’s next: “Having already reached for the most incendiary language available, what is left but putting his threats into action?” asked Sulzberger.
Where the president foams at the mouth, Sulzberger practices cool logic. “Mr. Trump’s campaign against journalists should concern every patriotic American. A free, fair and independent press is essential to our country’s strength and vitality and to every freedom that makes it great,” he wrote.
Trouble is, Trump has heard these high-minded appeals before, including from Sulzberger himself. In a stunning exchange aired earlier this year on the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” Sulzberger pressed Trump on how his anti-media rhetoric was spreading around the globe, endangering journalists and free societies. “I don’t like that. I mean I don’t like that,” Trump replied after Sulzberger pointed to the unfortunate diffusion of “fake news.” Sulzberger had delivered the same message the previous year, at another session in Washington with the president.
Such meetings and op-eds are important, in that they represent the best efforts to apprise Trump of the damage that can result from his words. By now, even a person of his stubbornness and poor listening skills surely knows that a fan had sent explosive devices to CNN and prominent Democrats; that a man had made death threats against Boston Globe journalists using phrases borrowed from Trump stump speeches; that media representatives covering his events have been harassed and abused; and much more.
Are the denunciations from such folks as Sulzberger working? Clearly not: Trump returns to his attacks against the media whenever he feels like it. In the face of such malice, there are no particularly useful or effective countermeasures. Just good-faith appeals sure to be ignored, again.