The vast — too vast — powers of the executive branch provide unscrupulous actors with the ability to punish dissidents through a variety of contrived regulatory methods. President Donald J. Trump, in whom opposition always recognized a decidedly authoritarian bent, has just the vindictive streak that makes an overbearing executive so dangerous: As Politico reported, Trump’s Department of Justice threatened to black the proposed AT&T and Time Warner merger unless they offload CNN.
Trump’s war on the free press knows few bounds. He’s wrongly labelled critical reports as “fake news,” a concept he completely fails to grasp but in whose rhetorical repetition he’s found great success (foreign leaders now use the same technique to mask crimes against humanity), and constantly undermines a democratic institution needed to provide an informed electorate. Now that fight bleeds over from words into economic livelihood.
“The only reason you would divest CNN would be to kowtow to the president because he doesn’t like the coverage,” Politico‘s source said. “It would send a chilling message to every news organization in the country.”
The New York Times reported in July that the White House had discussed using the pending merge as “a potential point of leverage over their adversary” — ie, CNN. An American administration views CNN and the press as its adversary and wants to hold up a merge of its parent company to exact concessions from the outlet. How would we respond to this in another country?
While there are economic reasons to oppose the merger — some fear concentration of power as a result — this thinking does not emerge in reported administration hesitation and dissatisfaction. In fact, the new DoJ antitrust chief stated, prior to his nomination by Trump, that he didn’t see the merger as a “major antitrust problem.” Now that he’s beholden to Trump, his views have changed.
Those connected to the Trump world, though outside of government, have suggested using the deal remake CNN. As Politico noted, “Trump’s longtime associate Roger Stone suggested in a tweet last month that a ‘house cleaning’ of CNN personalities like Don Lemon, Jake Tapper and Ana Navarro will take place once AT&T completes its acquisition of Time Warner.”
This is a political incursion into the free market that shows Trump’s willingness to use coercive state powers to punish administration critics. That, of course, is authoritarianism. Regulatory powers should never be wielded as a weapon to bully into submission any individual or outlet that has a platform with which to criticize the president. De facto censorship and plain bullying has no place in democratic America.