Donald Trump has gone a step too far with ban on media organisations
With the decision to exclude respected media organs from the daily press briefing, the president has turned the power of the White House against a core institution of American democracy
One pillar of the US claim to be the freest nation in the world is freedom of the press. In practice, short of a personal appearance by the president, the daily White House press briefing by a key aide serves the values of free speech and the public’s right to know embodied in that liberty. It has long been a tradition of the American system. That can no longer be taken for granted after the latest controversial episode of Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency.
Hours after a speech to conservative supporters in which Trump stepped up his attack on the integrity and professionalism of respected media organs over reporting he dislikes, White House press secretary Sean Spicer excluded them from a briefing. They included the Los Angeles Times, CNN, BBC, Huffington Post and The New York Times, with the latter describing it as a highly unusual breach of relations between the White House and its press corps.
Trump has gone an unacceptable step further than his latest escalation of attacks on journalists as “the enemy of the people” employed by “fake news” organisations which publish anonymously sourced stories that reflect poorly on him. He has turned the power of the White House against a core institution of American democracy.
It is a step too far. Trump has not just violated America’s vaunted press freedom, but a cherished core value of Hong Kong. The free press everywhere will unite behind resistance to this abuse of power. Press secretary Spicer served notice to his handpicked briefing audience that the White House would continue to “aggressively push back” against “false narratives, false stories [and] inaccurate facts”. It remains to be seen whether the unnamed “sources” in question – in reality senior officials who risk retribution by leaking information that might otherwise never be disclosed – are cowed by such threats.
The latest unsourced reports to spark Trump’s ire said his aides had pressured FBI officials to rebut intelligence leaks that the Trump team had been in touch with Russian intelligence during the election campaign. Trump has demanded that “FBI leakers” be punished. This is a sensitive issue given that US intelligence has concluded that Russia interfered in the election campaign, and that Trump was forced to sack his national security adviser for lying about discussing US sanctions against Russia with its ambassador.
Trump has made a divisive start to his second month in office. It will do nothing to ease the perception at home and abroad of dysfunction in the White House. He needs to come to terms with the political peril of a poisonous relationship with the media. And he urgently needs to restore mutual trust with intelligence advisers who are indispensable to informed conduct of defence and foreign policy.