WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) admonished his colleagues on the Senate floor today to start taking President Trump to task for false statements and branding of media as fake news, comparing the latter to the actions of dictators.
Flake declared that “without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts… our democracy will not last.”
“2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods,” he said. “It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. ‘The enemy of the people’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.”
The senator called it “a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies.”
“It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader,” he continued. “This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements.”
Trump tweeted in February that the media “is the enemy of the American people.”
Flake noted that President Trump “has it precisely backward … the free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy.”
“When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press,” he added, noting 80 journalists around the world were killed in connection with their jobs last year and 21 reporters are currently imprisoned on “false news” charges.
“So powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality,” Flake said.
“No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.”
Flake told his colleagues that “no longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence” and “no longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions.”
Trump has promised to announce “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards today. Flake said it “beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle.”
The senator urged lawmakers to unite “to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.”
“Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction,” he said.
Flake counted in his examples of falsehoods “pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate, to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed ‘hoax’ at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.”
As “respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports,” Flake then gave examples of global dictators branding news they don’t like as false, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad brushing off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons as a product of a “fake news era.”
Other examples in the “disgraceful… feedback loop” included Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, and leaders in Myanmar and Singapore.
“Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible,” Flake said. “We are not in a ‘fake news’ era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.”
The senator acknowledged that “any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair.”
“But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it,” Flake said. “…We are a mature democracy: It is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.”
The junior senator from Arizona, who is not running for re-election this year, was not alone as the state’s senior senator, John McCain (R-Ariz.), penned an op-ed in the Washington Post today calling on Trump to stop attacking the free press.
“Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy,” McCain wrote. “…While administration officials often condemn violence against reporters abroad, Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets. This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit. The phrase ‘fake news’ — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.”
Two senators — Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — were on the Senate floor during Flake’s speech, par for the course for daytime speeches not attached to legislation, and spoke in support of the Arizona Republican afterward.