On Sunday, Sen. John McCain said that he was concerned about President Trump's recent attacks on the media. Specifically, he said that Trump's comments are "how dictators get started," because the country needs "a free and sometimes adversarial press." If all you caught were McCain's denunciations, you're probably wondering: What did Trump say about the media that so upset the Arizona senator?
That would be a tweet the president sent out on Friday, in which he declared that five news outlets — CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and the New York Times — are "the enemy of the American People!" It raised alarm bells across the country, and and for good reason. It's one thing to accuse the press of being biased, untruthful, or even malevolent; it's quite another to call it "the enemy," a word more responsible presidents reserve for, say, an invading army.
McCain, who occasionally positions himself as Trump's loyal opposition in the GOP, condemned the president for saying that in a Sunday interview on Meet The Press.
"I hate the press, I hate you especially, but the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It's vital." McCain told Chuck Todd. "If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free, and many times adversarial, press. Without it, I'm afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started."
"I'm not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator," McCain added, which isn't the kind of thing a senator normally has to clarify about the president of his or her own party. "I'm just saying we need to learn the lessons of history."
McCain brings up a good point. While Trump hasn't actually cracked down on the press in any legal or substantive sense, it's nevertheless concerning to hear a president make such a bombastic declaration of war against the media.
On the same token, though, McCain isn't entirely in the clear on this, either. During the election, Trump said he'd like to "open up" libel laws — that is, make it easier to sue journalists who write "purposely negative" stories about politicians. McCain proceeded to endorse Trump* for the presidency. And since Trump has taken office, McCain has voted with the administration 94 percent of the time.
This doesn't mean that McCain is incorrect about the possible ramifications of Trump's position. Many dictatorships do indeed begin with restrictions on, and the gradual elimination of, the free press. At the same time, Trump's views on these matters have been a matter of public record for around a year; if McCain was truly concerned about them, maybe he shouldn't have endorsed the guy for the presidency? Just a thought.
*McCain eventually retracted his endorsement, but not for reasons related to Trump's comments about a free press.