President Donald Trump, angry about “fake news” again, wants to know when it will be appropriate to talk about revoking NBC’s broadcast licence.
He’s upset because NBC News reported the reason Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have been prompted to call Trump a “moron” in a private meeting in July: Trump had told his top officials he wanted a tenfold increase in the US nuclear arsenal.*
“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their Licence? Bad for country!” Trump tweeted.
Look. It’s bad for the public discourse that the president so frequently attacks the media, especially for reporting accurately on him and his administration. But there is a certain amount of hair-pulling about this tweet that isn’t warranted, because it’s one of the emptiest threats the president has made.
One of the key themes of Trump’s administration is his failure to assert full control over the executive branch apparatus. The federal government is big and complicated, and it’s staffed by a lot of career officials and even some political appointees who are hostile to various aspects of the president’s agenda. They also have to follow laws and regulations that can be inconvenient for his desire to consolidate power.
Then some functions, including the licensing of broadcast television stations, are handled by independent commissions the president can’t directly order around. He does get to make appointments to these commissions, but as Matt Yglesias notes, his nominees to commissions like the Federal Communications Commission have been standard Republicans interested in a typical deregulatory agenda, not in punishing outlets whose content Trump dislikes.
That is to say: FCC Chair Ajit Pai did not come to Washington to carry out Trump’s little vendettas.
If Trump wanted to use these commissions for autocratic ends, he’d have to be stocking the government with officials who share his desire to do that and who are competent. Fortunately, he hasn’t managed to do that, in part because he has so few true loyalists available to appoint.
Democratic institutions and the rule of law have held up surprisingly well during the Trump presidency, partly because the president is too inept to effectively break them.
There are also other issues that CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter address, like the fact that licenses for broadcast television stations only come up for renewal every eight years, that objections to renewal have to be raised by local residents, and that renewals are nearly always granted. Networks themselves aren’t licensed at all.
Louis Nelson and Margaret Harding Hill explained for Politico how the FCC’s hands are tied on renewals:
“Local residents or competitors can file a challenge to a station’s licence renewal, but the basis for such a challenge is extremely limited — it must be a case where the station systematically violated the FCC’s rules or lacked the requisite ‘character’ to hold the licence. That is usually defined as a felony conviction, said Andrew Schwartzman, a communications lawyer with the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.”
There is also the matter of the First Amendment litigation would surely ensue if Trump directed the FCC to deny a licence for political reasons.
But it’s not going to get there, because Trump’s “war on the media” is a communications strategy, not a policy. Trump thinks defining himself in opposition to the media is an effective strategy for generating enthusiasm among his base, and he’s right.
That’s all the tweet is about.
*I am a paid contributor to MSNBC and NBC News.
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