When Chicago police accused actor Jussie Smollett of fabricating a story about being attacked by MAGA-loving bigots, President Donald Trump was quick to weigh in. “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” he wrote on Twitter.
And when Catholic high school student Nick Sandmann sued The Washington Post this week over its coverage of last month’s confrontation between the teenager and a Native American elder, Trump couldn’t help himself. “Go get them Nick,” he declared. “Fake News!”
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But more than 24 hours after news broke that a Coast Guard officer — an avowed white nationalist — was allegedly plotting to kill Democratic politicians and journalists, Trump has, at least so far, not said a word.
Asked for comment, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The president and the entire administration have condemned violence in all forms as we have stated many times.” Sanders did not respond to questions about whether Trump planned to tone down his rhetoric.
Trump’s silence is notable for a president who never hesitates to spout off about issues large and small, from Venezuelan politics to Saturday Night Live. It reflects a deep sensitivity by the president and his aides to accusations that his verbal assault on the free press, personalized attacks on political targets and racially charged language could incite violence. But it also illustrates a tactic that those who know Trump say he has used for decades to shape coverage while tearing down his opponents — comment on the issues he wants to amplify and get covered, while ignoring on those that don’t fit his preferred narrative.
“Long before he arrived at the White House, President Trump learned to use media coverage to build a brand and shape positive narratives,” said a former White House official, who was granted anonymity to characterize the president’s approach to the media.
News of the alleged domestic terror plot comes the same week that the president has ramped up his criticism of the media, insisting that The New York Times is “a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,” despite warnings from the newspaper’s publisher that such rhetoric puts journalists in danger. He also went after The Washington Post’s fact checker, a section that tracks Trump’s misstatements.
People close to the president argue that Trump shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of a small group of disturbed individuals who happen to support him. And Trump’s allies don’t believe he has any intention of curbing his criticism of the press. They also note that some members of the Trump administration have been targeted by the president’s critics, including Sanders, who was asked to leave a restaurant, and senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who recently disclosed that she was assaulted at a restaurant last year.
The president regularly fumes in public and in private about negative coverage of him, and he also believes there’s a political utility to undercutting the reporters who cover him, according to people who know him. It’s a strategy he’s been turning to most of his adult life, dating back to his time in New York, where he would regularly engage with — and spar with — tabloid reporters.
“So to a large extent he does it naturally, but his use of the media is also a product of a deliberate strategy to advance his own ideas and undercut contrary narratives,” the former White House official said.
Trump has often avoided engaging in a fulsome debate about the impact of his rhetoric, including after Cesar Sayoc’s October 2018 arrest for mailing a series of bombs to some of Trump’s political opponents.
After the incident, Trump called for unity during a rally in Wisconsin, saying, “No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion, or control. We all know that. Such conduct must be fiercely opposed and firmly prosecuted.”
But the next day, he blamed the media. “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he tweeted. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
Watchdog groups continue to have deep concerns about the president’s attacks on the press. They warn his rhetoric is being repeated by dictators around the world.
“It’s irresponsible and dangerous,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, the North America program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “When we talk to journalists, they feel less safe than they used to.”
A January CPJ analysis found that Trump sent more than 1,300 tweets critical of the press since becoming a presidential candidate. Though Trump tweets less overall as president than he did as a candidate, CPJ found that Trump tweets critical of the press have nonetheless increased during the first two years of his presidency.
At the same time, the number of journalists imprisoned across the world on false news charges has risen to 28, compared to just nine two years ago, according to a December 2018 report from CPJ.
Even U.S. journalists have faced violence and intimidation in recent months. In June 2018, a gunman killed five employees at the Capital Gazette in Maryland when he opened fire in the newsroom. CNN evacuated its New York office due to a bomb threat in December 2018. And earlier this month a Trump supporter shoved a BBC cameraman at a rally.
Trump has occasionally made light of some of these violent incidents, joking last fall about a Republican congressman convicted of assault for body-slamming a reporter.
Still, most analysts are careful about directly blaming Trump for violence against journalists.
“I think it’s very difficult to draw a bright line between what comes out of the president’s mouth or his Twitter account and action from other individuals,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But that doesn’t mean we should accept a normalization of this rhetoric.”
Trump’s allies have pounced on journalists and others who were quick to connect Trump to the Smollett and Covington Catholic incidents, arguing that the president’s critics are so eager to cast the president and his supporters in a negative light that they don’t wait for all the facts to emerge.
But others haven’t exhibited the same caution when it comes to finger pointing. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who has publicly sparred with the president, didn’t hold back on Thursday morning.
“This is pretty simple,” Scarborough said. “It’s all on the president’s shoulders, it’s all the president’s fault and he sits there with his mouth shut for once in his life, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t tweet anything — which of course makes it even more on him.”
Scarborough was among the members of the media on the hit list of U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson, who was arrested earlier this month, according to authorities. Others included MSNBC hosts Chris Hayes and Ari Melber, and CNN’s Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo and Van Jones.
Scarborough and others have noted that news of the alleged plot to kill Democratic politicians and journalists broke just hours after New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger chatized Trump for calling the Times the “enemy of the American people” after it published an account of the president’s efforts to undercut the investigations encircling him.
“The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is not just false, it’s dangerous. It has an ugly history of being wielded by dictators and tyrants who sought to control public information. And it is particularly reckless coming from someone whose office gives him broad powers to fight or imprison the nation’s enemies,” Sulzberger wrote. “As I have repeatedly told President Trump face to face, there are mounting signs that this incendiary rhetoric is encouraging threats and violence against journalists at home and abroad.”