WASHINGTON— Republican Sen. Jeff Flake on Wednesday compared President Donald Trump to Joseph Stalin over his use of the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe journalists who write negative stories about his administration.
Flake also condemned the president’s ”Most Corrupt and Dishonest Media Awards” planned for Wednesday night, saying, “It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle, but here we are.”
Flake, who represents Arizona and plans to retire at the end of the year, claimed that the president’s words and actions have influenced world leaders, inspiring them to dismiss legitimate criticism as “fake news.”
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Dick Durbin spoke in support of Flake’s statements, echoing his sentiment that the president’s verbal attacks on journalists and media organizations are concerning.
Klobuchar recounted the many insults levied towards journalists by the president, such as one during the campaign when Trump appeared to mock a disabled journalist’s condition as well as the administration’s coining of the phrase “alternative facts” to undermine fact-checking by the press.
“There are even reports that the administration is using antitrust enforcement authority as leverage to secure positive media coverage,” said Klobuchar, referring to attempts by the Justice Department to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which owns CNN, a frequent target of Trump’s hostility.
Republican Sen. John McCain appeared to back up his colleague from Arizona. In an op-ed published Wednesday in The Washington Post, McCain implored the president to promote free press at home and abroad, commit foreign assistance to independent media outlets and condemn violence towards journalists.
Both McCain and Flake referred to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists that named 2017 as one of the most dangerous years to be a journalist. According to the report, 262 journalists were imprisoned and 72 journalists were killed last year.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed Flake’s speech as a political ploy.
“He’s not criticizing the president because he’s against oppression, he’s criticizing the president because he has terrible poll numbers and he is looking for some attention,” she said at the regular White House briefing.
Dr. Kelli Ward, a Republican who has announced her candidacy for Flake’s Senate seat, criticized his comparison between Trump and Stalin.
“Flake’s disturbing speech was not only disrespectful to the position and institution he now serves in, it only serves to exacerbate the very problem he claims to be railing against,” she said in a statement released Wednesday, and called on other candidates for his seat to publicly condemn his remarks.
But some liberals pointed out that, while Flake has often been a vocal critic of the president, he has voted with Trump’s preference on 90 percent of Senate votes, according to fivethirtyeight.com. The times he voted against Trump’s wishes involved favoring sanctions against Russia for interference in the U.S. election and supporting more disaster relief aid for Puerto Rico.
Tensions between presidents and the media are nothing new. According to Gene Policinski, president of the Newseum Institute, attacks from the partisan press of the 1790s were a major influence on George Washington’s choice to step down after two terms as president. More recently, presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon struck back at a press they saw as hindering their agendas.
“What is different is the relentlessness of it,” said Policinski, referring to Trump’s frequent criticism of the press. “This broad-based, relentless attack, armed with the new technology of Twitter, is unprecedented because those tools didn’t exist.”