Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is dangerous, but his actions are worse



Gage Skidmore

In a coordinated response to Trump’s incessant attacks on the press, more than 300 news organizations joined together today and published editorials about the important role of a free press.

The effort is led by the Boston Globe, who called for editorial boards of publications across the country to publish their own editorials defending—in their own words—the importance of press freedom. Participating publications include outlets big and small, from the New York Times to small, local, and independent papers.

Trump has called the press “enemy of the American people,” and said that journalists “don’t like our country.” He responded to the editorials in a predictably petty manner. He has also vowed to revoke broadcast licenses over coverage he didn’t like, and has threatened to sue critical news organizations and journalists. And, of course, he engages in constant Twitter diatribes about “fake news.”

The president’s verbal attacks on the press are certainly appalling, but his rhetoric gets an outsized amount of attention, when his administration’s actions against press are much worse. They deserve just as much condemnation as his tweets. 

Here are four actions the Trump administration has taken that are more dangerous to media and the First Amendment than anything Trump has said:

1. Escalating the war on whistleblowers and spying on journalists

Trump inherited Obama’s unprecedented prosecution of whistleblowers who give information to the media, and the Trump administration has escalated its investigations and prosecutions of leaks. Last year, the Daily Beast reported that leak investigations were up 800% under Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and in the first 18 months of his administration they've already brought four prosecutions. All leak investigations—whether they target whistleblowers to provided information to journalists or other entities—are a serious press freedom threat.

Reality Winner became the first whistleblower prosecuted by the Trump administration for leaking information to the press. She was charged with, and eventually plead guilty to, violation of the archaic Espionage Act for making Russian hacking attempts of U.S. election infrastructure public. For her act of public service, she was sentenced to 63 months in prison—the longest sentence a leaker has received in federal court.

Trump’s Justice Department also secretly obtained a year’s worth of phone and email records of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins as part of its investigation into her alleged source—in seeming direct violation of Justice Department guidelines. While this is the first publicly known instance of the Trump administration directly targeting a journalist with surveillance, there may be many others.

And beyond whistleblowers who leak information to the press, the Trump administration has cracked down on freedom of information. Trump has forced senior White House staff to sign non-disclosure agreements, and conducted unofficial leak investigations in the White House. While the NDAs are likely unenforceable, this could chill and intimidate government employees who may have blown the whistle into silence.

2. Potential prosecution of publishers

The New York Times reported in May 2017 that Trump began a conversation with then-FBI Director James Comey by “saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.” While it’s unclear if he has privately kept pushing the FBI and DOJ to take such actions, there’s ample evidence that they might try to do just that with WikiLeaks.

Top Trump officials have vowed to prosecute WikiLeaks for publishing documents. If the Department of Justice brings charges against WikiLeaks or Julian Assange for their work, it would open any news organization that reports on or publishes classified information to prosecution, too. Attorney General Jeff Sessions even refused to rule out using the precedent of prosecuting WikiLeaks against other news organizations.

With reports indicating that Assange will soon be kicked out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, CNN has reported that “according to US officials, charges have been drawn up relating to previous WikiLeaks disclosures of classified US documents.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Assange, everyone who cares about the press’ ability to publish leaks should loudly condemn any attempt to prosecute WikiLeaks.

3. Targeting immigrant journalists with deportation threats

Last December, immigration officials arrested a Mexican journalist and his son who had sought asylum in the United States after being threatened by the Mexican military. He was detained for more than seven months. Internal ICE emails strongly suggest that Emilio Gutiérrez-Soto was targeted for arrest in retaliation for his criticism of United States immigration policy.

Gutiérrez-Soto isn’t the only journalist targeted by ICE for his First Amendment protected speech. Manuel Duran, a reporter for a Spanish language paper in Memphis, was arrested while covering a protest. Although all charges against him were quickly dropped, he was transferred to ICE custody, where he has remained detained without charge and could be deported at any time. Duran’s attorneys say it was his critical coverage of law enforcement that led the government to target him. ICE has also been accused of targeting activists who are accused of being publicly critical of Trump’s immigration policies too.

Gutiérrez-Soto and Duran both came to the United States because they were threatened in their home countries. Their work, and criticism of cruel law enforcement agencies like ICE, is critical, and it’s a huge press freedom threat that the United States government retaliates against their speech by detaining them.

4. Threatened journalists with decades in prison for covering protests

On Trump’s Inauguration Day, over 200 people—including protesters, legal observers, medics, and journalists—were swept up in an indiscriminate arrest for being present at a protest. Among them were at least nine journalists doing their jobs. And while charges against seven were dropped quickly, Trump’s Department of Justice targeted two— both independent journalists—with felony charges.

Alexei Wood and Aaron Cantú faced outrageous charges that carried the possibility of approximately 60 and 10 years in prison respectively. While charges against both were eventually dropped after the Justice Department’s case seemed to fall apart, their cases are not clearly victories.

The J20 prosecutions will undoubtedly have chilling effects on press freedom as well as political speech and protest. Trump’s Department of Justice has sent a disturbing precedent of targeting the press for reporting on a demonstration, and endangering its fundamental ability to make newsworthy political events public.

Trump’s rhetoric and his administration’s legal actions are both abuses of power and comprise assaults on press freedom. But beyond his tweets, vague libel threats, and baseless fake news accusations, the Trump administration poses a very real threat to press freedom, and has taken steps that have made critical reporting materially more dangerous in the United States. It’s never been more important for news organizations to speak up in defense of their important work.

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