Trump suggests challenging NBC’s broadcast license
The veiled threat opens a new front in the president’s feud with the media.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday suggested that NBC’s broadcast license should be pulled as punishment for the network’s reporting on his national security meetings, opening a new front in the president’s long-running battle with the press.
NBC News published a report Wednesday morning stating that Trump had surprised his national security advisers by proposing a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during a July meeting. The meeting was what allegedly led Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call Trump a “moron” — a comment that NBC first reported last week.
Trump lashed out at NBC, appearing to make a threat that is not even possible, given that the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t directly license networks.
“Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a ‘tenfold’ increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!” Trump wrote on Twitter, equating the two TV news outlets he has most often lashed out against. “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!”
NBC did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The FCC had no immediate comment.
“That was just fake news by NBC, which gives a lot of fake news lately,” Trump said Wednesday during a brief interaction with the White House press pool ahead of a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it.”
Trump also insisted that he had never sought an increase in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, only that the arsenal be kept in “perfect condition, perfect shape.” Defense Secretary James Mattis, in a statement released minutes after Trump’s media availability ended, said “recent reports that the President called for an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are absolutely false. This kind of erroneous reporting is irresponsible.”
“The press should speak more honestly. I mean, I’ve seen tremendously dishonest press. It’s not even a question of distortion,” Trump added. “And then they have their sources that don’t exist, in my opinion, they don’t exist. They make up the sources. There are no sources.”
The president’s willingness to potentially challenge the broadcast licenses of a media outlet whose coverage he objects to marked an escalation in rhetoric for Trump. The president has regularly complained about coverage he views as unfairly critical, labeling stories, reporters and entire outlets “fake news.”
As a candidate, Trump threatened to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” He repeated that threat in a post to Twitter in March. He also floated the idea of canceling the long-held tradition of White House press briefings, which were moved mostly off-camera for weeks last summer.
It is the second time in as many weeks that Trump has attacked NBC News. The earlier attack came after the “moron” report, which also said Tillerson had been on the verge of quitting over the summer.
Tillerson has denied that he ever considered resigning, and a State Department spokeswoman later said the secretary doesn’t use language like “moron.”
Trump, meanwhile, said the network’s news division “is so knowingly inaccurate with their reporting” and had “low news and reporting standards.”
“NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Oct. 4.
It’s unclear exactly how Trump could directly challenge a media outlet’s broadcasting license, if he chose to follow through on his veiled threat.
The FCC, an independent federal agency, issues broadcast licenses to stations and oversees license holders. It does not license networks. NBC is owned by Comcast, which holds broadcast licenses for several stations. NBC also airs on affiliate stations owned by other companies.
Local residents or competitors can file a challenge to a station’s license 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 license. 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.
“It’s an empty threat. The last thing that NBC is going to worry about is whether its broadcast licenses are in jeopardy,” Schwartzman said.
Schwartzman said the only time he could remember a large broadcaster losing its license was in the 1970s, after a New York station’s management was convicted of bribery. The license renewal issue surfaced in 2012, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. was facing controversy over a phone-hacking scandal in Britain, but Fox’s U.S. television licenses were not revoked over the issue.
Although NBC is currently in Trump’s cross hairs, CNN has most often been the target of Trump’s anger with the media. The president has sought to turn the network into something of a foil for him and his supporters, who have chanted “CNN sucks” at rallies. Trump has shared images viewed by some as encouraging violence against CNN, including a professional wrestling clip that shows the president attacking a man with a CNN logo superimposed over his head and a cartoon with a “Trump” train running over a man covered by a CNN logo.
The cable network’s White House reporters have sparred often with White House press secretaries Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders during briefings, while the administration has, at times, refused to put its spokespeople and surrogates on CNN.
Trump has lobbed insults and threats at newspapers, too, most often targeting the “money losing” New York Times and The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the owner of online retail giant Amazon.
“The #AmazonWashingtonPost, sometimes referred to as the guardian of Amazon not paying internet taxes (which they should) is FAKE NEWS!” Trump wrote on Twitter in June.
The attack came one day after the Post reported that at least four Trump Organization golf properties had on display a fake Time magazine with Trump on the cover and flattering headlines about his reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” which aired on NBC.
Jason Schwartz contributed to this report.