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GOP Senator to Trump: Are You 'Recanting Oath' to Protect the First Amendment?

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) speaks at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting July 12, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) hit out at President Trump on Wednesday evening for comments earlier in the day in which the president lashed out at unfavorable media and suggested exerting licensing control over such outlets.

In an exclusive, NBC reported Wednesday that Trump said during a July 20 national security meeting (the one after which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron”) he wanted a sharp increase — amounting to tenfold — in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

“Trump’s comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve,” said the report.

“According to the officials present, Trump’s advisers, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised. Officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the buildup. In interviews, they told NBC News that no such expansion is planned.”

Trump tweeted in response: “Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a ‘tenfold’ increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!”

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” he added.

That quickly drew a rebuke from a coalition of press freedom organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Free Press, Media Law Resource Center, PEN America and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “When coming from the leader of the free world, words matter. And if the First Amendment means anything, it’s that the government can’t censor news because it’s critical of the government,” they said in a joint statement. “The president should be working to uphold the values of the First Amendment, not tearing them down.”

They stressed that the Federal Communications Commission “is charged with making sure that broadcasters serve the public interest,” but “this independent agency does not and cannot make such judgments either on the basis of political viewpoint or at the president’s whim.”

Added CPJ’s North America program coordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck: “Heavily censored countries such as Azerbaijan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey license news outlets according to whether their leaders agree with their coverage. Donald Trump’s assertion that NBC’s license could be challenged not only puts him in unfavorable company but emboldens other governments to embrace authoritarian tendencies.”

Before a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon, Trump called it “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write — and people should look into it.”

Trump was asked if he thinks “there should be limits on what the press should write.”

“No, the press should speak more honestly. I mean, I’ve seen tremendously dishonest press. It’s not even a question of distortion, like the question that was just asked before about ten times the nuclear capability. I know the capability that we have, believe me, and it is awesome. It is massive,” the president replied.

“And so when they make up stories like that, that’s just made up,” Trump added. “And the generals will tell you that. And then they have their sources that don’t exist. In my opinion, they don’t exist. They make up the sources. There are no sources.”

In the evening, Sasse issued a statement after Trump “yet again attacked the First Amendment.”

“Mr. President: Words spoken by the president of the United States matter,” the GOP senator said. “Are you tonight recanting the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?”

On the other side of the aisle, House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he was “appalled by the president’s dangerous statement … questioning freedom of the press in our country.”

“It is what separates democracies from dictatorships; closed societies from open ones; nations that live in darkness and fear from those whose people can speak out and share information freely,” Hoyer said. “The role of a free press is not to write what officials wish to read or see on television but to report the unvarnished truth.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) tweeted in response, “Wow. This is what authoritarianism looks like.”