How Trump Can Legally Use the Federal Government to Punish His Media Enemies
President Donald Trump has come into possession of some powerful tools since his inauguration to punish his opponents and demand obedience from his allies — and only Senate Republicans can limit his authority.
The infamously — and pettily — vengeful Trump can use U.S. regulatory agencies, which don’t always operate on the presumption of innocence like the criminal justice system, to muzzle the free press, stifle dissent and reward cronies, predicted Matt Yglesias in a Vox analysis shortly after the election that has proven to be prescient.
Media companies may censor themselves if Trump makes an example of one of them, Yglesias warned — and he cited a couple of possible targets for such a vendetta.
AT&T is seeking permission from anti-trust authorities to acquire Time Warner, whose executives may fear the deal could be scuttled if Trump is angered over coverage on CNN, one of the media company’s holdings.
That already seems to be happening, as White House advisers have reportedly sought to use those merger negotiations as “leverage” while the president attacks the network on social media and from his podium while overseas.
“Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card,” reported the New York Times.
Or Trump could punish Jeff Bezos, who owns both the Washington Post and Amazon, for unfavorable reporting by pressing a Federal Trade Commission investigation of the online retailer’s predatory pricing.
Independent media aren’t as vulnerable to regulatory threats, but they’re more vulnerable to harassing lawsuits filed by Trump himself or a business ally such as Peter Thiel — who funded the lawsuit that killed Gawker.
Even Facebook, which plays a larger role in disseminating news than it will admit, could shake up its algorithm to favor pro-Trump propaganda to stay in the good graces of U.S. trade negotiators or financial regulators.
“We are used to corruption in which the rich buy political favor,” Yglesias wrote. “What we need to learn to fear is corruption in which political favor becomes the primary driver of economic success.”
Trump enlisted a media ally to intimidate MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the “Morning Joe” hosts revealed last week after the president hurled personal attacks against them on Twitter.
They said top White House staffers urged them to grovel before the president or the National Enquirer would publish a negative story about them, although Scarborough said they refused.
The tabloid, which is published by Trump friend David Pecker, has — along with the gossip site TMZ — been reportedly buying and then killing stories that might damage the president, while also praising him and attacking his rivals.
Online, Trump-supporting trolls viciously harass individual journalists with racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic threats, and by dumping their private information online.
That’s already happened, as Trump supporters go after CNN for tracking down — but not identifying — a Reddit user who created a video of Trump body-slamming the network.
Jack Posobiec, a controversial pro-Trump activist who has attended White House briefings, shared purported personal information for several of the network’s employees and their families.
Trump supporters have accused CNN of blackmailing the Reddit user through an oddly worded explanation for the decision not to reveal his name, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) suggested the network’s employees could be charged with extortion.
White supremacist trolls rallied by the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website then threatenedCNN employees and their families.
Most of those cyberbullies would probably never act on their threats, but Yglesias warned “it would only take the murder of a single opposition activist or journalist to chill dozens of others.”
“The risk is not that Trump becomes a dictator, but that civil society simply withers and dies,” Yglesias wrote.