I have previously criticized President Donald Trump for his relentless attacks on the media and his mantra of labeling such publications as the Washington Post and New York Times as “the enemy of the people.” He has also routinely called a couple dozen people and organizations “traitors,” as recently listed by Axios. This weekend Trump continued the attacks on the New York Times for a story that revealed attacks on Russia’s electric power grid. Trump declared that the publication of the article was a “virtual act of treason” — an act on a classic example of investigatory reporting. Trump’s continued attacks on the free press are not just highly embarrassing but highly disturbing from a President of the United States. With free speech, the free press is the very touchstone of liberty in our nation.
Ironically, the story contradicted the common Democratic narrative that Trump is soft or even controlled by Russia. Here was a case where U.S. intelligence was allegedly shooting across the bow of Russia to show that it better stop probing our own electrical grid in a deterrent action. Trump however immediately wiped out that view by angrily denying the story as “fake news” and “treason.”
“Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia, This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country. . . .ALSO, NOT TRUE! Anything goes with our Corrupt News Media today They will do, or say, whatever it takes, with not even the slightest thought of consequence! These are true cowards and without doubt, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
As Trump was denying the story, other coverage said that U.S. intelligence officials are hesitant to share the details of their operations from Trump. According to David E. Sanger and Nicole Periroth:
Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants”—software code that can be used for surveillance or attack—inside the Russian grid.
Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction—and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.
Obviously, there is no need to defend the New York Times for such a piece of investigatory reporting. Nor is there a need to defend our commitment to the free press as on of the virtual pillars of democratic government and freedom. It is simply disheartening to hear an American President voice such attacks previously reserved to the world’s most authoritarian figures.
The New York Times spoke for many concerned citizens and journalists on Sunday that “Accusing the press of treason is dangerous.” It added that it followed a cautious and responsible course in vetting the story with the Trump Administration: “As our story notes, President Trump’s own national security officials said there were no concerns.”