In another of his famous Twitter fits of rage, President Donald Trump on Wednesday went after NBC News for allegedly fabricating a report that he wanted a “tenfold” increase in the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
“Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC=CNN!” Trump wrote.
He struck a more serious tone in a message sent 10 minutes later in which he seemed to threaten the broadcast network with intervention from the Federal Communications Commission:
“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” he wrote.
The tweets predictably provoked much outrage even as some Trump defenders insisted that they should not be taken literally, in part because only NBC's local affiliates are licensed by the FCC.
Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, denounced the threat in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.
“The founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the 1st Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press," said Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon. "It is contrary to this fundamental right for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist.”
Longtime Trump fan and former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly tweeted Thursday in what seemed a veiled statement of support.
"The President will not be able to impact licenses, but he is doing major damage to the NBC brand," he wrote.
While Trump does seem to enjoy popping off in rage, his threat against NBC should be considered more than just an idle one for two reasons: 1) Trump almost always previews his strategies via speeches or social media and 2) presidents actually have some ability to take governmental action against news organizations, despite the First Amendment's protections.
On the first point, while Trump clearly prefers publicly musing about potential actions on his Twitter account, previous presidents utilized a similar tactic to gauge public reaction to possible ideas. Instead of Twitter, however, past administrations utilized well-placed leaks -- eventually called "trial balloons" by political veterans -- to favored journalists which subsequently spread throughout the rest of the national press. Sometimes private polls were used for this as well. If a potential policy was met with shock or outrage, past administrations would tweak them or even totally withdraw them.
Trump launched numerous political trial balloons during his campaign as well as his presidency. The first one was his Dec. 7, 2015, statement calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." This policy, which Trump repeatedly called a "Muslim ban" until he realized he had to call it a "travel ban" to prevent it from being overturned in court, was the fifth executive order he signed as president, literally within days of being sworn in.
He has continued this pattern of using public statements and social media posts as a means of telegraphing his strategy. Most recently, Trump did this with a series of tweets beginning Sept. 23, attacking athletes from engaging in silent protests during the playing of the national anthem.
Although the NFL has become the focal point for his tirades against protesting athletes, Trump's first tweet on the matter was directed against NBA player Stephen Curry.
"If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem," Trump wrote. "If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"
Although the remark earned Trump much mockery and anger from his critics, the tweet has thus far been "liked" by more than 214,000 accounts, making it one of Trump's most popular tweets ever, according to data released by Twitter.
With his fans reacting with such approval, Trump made sure to follow up the Curry attack with several more attacking NFL players. Beyond getting his fans excited (the Rosetta Stone to deciphering almost anything Trump does), going after rich athletes also served to distract Trump supporters from the fact that the GOP had just failed to pass a health care bill out of the Senate.
Trump has kept the pressure up on the NFL with numerous tweets as well as directing Vice President Mike Pence to stage a walkout at an Indianapolis Colts game to keep the flames burning.
As with the "Muslim ban" and the NFL anthem controversies, Trump has also returned to his polarizing-but-popular threats against journalists.
"It is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write," he told reporters on Wednesday afternoon, during a press appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trump repeated the sentiment on Twitter later in the evening.
"Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!" he wrote.
While Trump does not have the power to directly tell the FCC to go after NBC, he can, in fact, make trouble for broadcasters through the agency, if it is willing to go along. So far newly appointed FCC commissioner Ajit Pai has refused to comment on the matter, although he has said in the past that any demands that the agency go after media outlets were "fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions."
Nonetheless, a president has actually gone there before: Richard Nixon. And it actually worked, since the FCC does have power over local broadcast stations, many of which are owned directly by NBC and other networks.
Nixon and his staffers utilized the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine to demand changes, but the reality is that the agency still proclaims it has authority to go after content it doesn't deem appropriate, as The Wrap's Susan Seager notes:
The FCC states on its website that it will investigate stations accused of deliberately distorting the news, but that the burden of proof is high.
“The Commission will investigate a station for news distortion if it receives documented evidence of such rigging or slanting, such as testimony or other documentation, from individuals with direct personal knowledge that a licensee or its management engaged in the intentional falsification of the news,” the FCC writes.
The commission says it will generally not intervene in cases in which viewers believe stations have “aired inaccurate or one-sided news reports or comments, covered stories inadequately, or overly dramatized the events that they cover” because “it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own.”
While such a challenge would be unlikely to prevail in court, it could nonetheless impact a network's ability to do business and certainly cause it to rack up immense legal bills. There are other things Trump could do as well, including calling upon loyal businesses and citizens to, boycott outlets he deems "unfair."
As always, the best advice for assessing Trump's tweets is to take them both seriously and literally, since one never knows which way he will take them. Using the government to attack media outlets he dislikes has long been a Trump desire. In February of last year, Trump said he wanted to "open up" libel laws to allow him to sue journalists for writing "purposely negative and horrible and false articles."
Considering how often he's expressed a desire to attack the press through government power, one should take Trump's threats against NBC and others very seriously.