President Donald Trump denied ever calling for a bigger U.S. nuclear arsenal and questioned whether FCC licenses should be taken from NBC television stations after the network published a story on Wednesday saying he had done so in a meeting with military and security officials.
“It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should want to look into it,” Trump told reporters as he met at the White House with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trump’s denial was backed up by a statement by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “Recent reports that the President called for an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are absolutely false,” Mattis said. “This kind of erroneous reporting is irresponsible.”
NBC said that Trump made his remarks about the arsenal at a meeting with his national security advisers on July 20, and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him a “moron” after he left that session.
Trump first issued a denial on Twitter early Wednesday and then raised the prospect of challenging FCC licenses. NBCUniversal, the parent company of the network, is owned by Comcast Corp.
“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 wrote in a tweet.
The president doubled-down on the threat Wednesday night, saying on Twitter that “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
Comcast shares slid slightly lower after Trump’s tweet, down 0.7 percent to $37.41 at 10:28 a.m. in New York.
Trump has occasionally threatened to use the powers of his office against news organizations that cross him. During his campaign, and again in March, he mused about loosening libel law to make it easier to win lawsuits over inaccurate stories. In an Oct. 5 tweet he urged the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate mainstream media organizations’ news coverage as part of its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon urged his lieutenants to interfere with the renewal of the Washington Post’s licenses for Florida TV stations. The company’s stock price took a hit, and defending the licenses cost the company more than $1 million in legal fees over 2 1/2 years, publisher Katharine Graham wrote in 1997.
“Of all the threats to the company during Watergate — the attempts to undermine our credibility, the petty slights, and the favoring of the competition — the most effective were the challenges to the licenses of our two Florida television stations,” Graham wrote in her memoir.
Trump’s tweet was reminiscent of the episode.
“Is that Mr. Nixon speaking? That’s the last time we had that,” said Peter Tannenwald, a communications attorney.
Tannenwald, who has practiced law for 50 years, couldn’t recall an instance of a TV license being revoked because of the station’s programming.
Democrats blasted the president’s action as a clear attempt to intimidate journalists.
Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts urged the Federal Communications Commission in a letter to “withstand any urges from President Trump to harm the news media and infringe upon the First Amendment.”
“@POTUS is again openly suggesting an abuse of power,” Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, said in a tweet.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, tweeted simply, “Not how it works.”
The FCC’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, who was chosen by Trump, didn’t respond to requests by email and telephone for comment.
The National Association of Broadcasters said Trump’s threat to use regulatory authority against the television network violates the Constitution’s First Amendment protection for press freedom.
“It is contrary to this fundamental right for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist,” Gordon Smith, president of the Washington-based trade group, said in an emailed comment. Smith is a former Republican U.S. senator from Oregon.
The FCC issues licenses to owners of television stations, which must be periodically renewed. Comcast owns 10 NBC stations, including in New York and Los Angeles, and it said in a filing this year that “substantially all of our broadcast television station licenses have pending applications for renewal.”
The television network also broadcasts through more than 200 stations owned by independent businesses. Affiliate owners include Gray Television Inc., which listed 29 NBC stations in a March filing, and Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which listed 22 stations in an annual filing in February.
The White House didn’t immediately comment. An NBCUniversal spokeswoman declined to comment.
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Trump and NBC have a uniquely complicated relationship.
NBC made Trump a star by airing “The Apprentice.” And Trump hosted NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” during the presidential campaign.
However, Trump has threatened to break up Comcast. Alec Baldwin routinely skewers Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” And NBC said it cut ties with Trump in 2015 after he derided Mexican immigrants as “rapists” during a speech announcing his presidential campaign, saying it would no longer air the annual Miss USA and Miss Universe Pageants — a joint venture between Trump and NBC.
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