WASHINGTON ― Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) warned Republicans that they must stand up to President Donald Trump’s attacks against the press or else risk being complicit in a dangerous slide to authoritarianism.
Flake delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor Wednesday warning that Trump’s repeated attacks on the U.S. media as “fake news” are hurting democracy, which he said depended on a shared set of facts.
“2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth – more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government,” Flake said. “It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods.”
Trump last week again suggested he would make it easier for people to sue news organizations and publishers for defamation by taking a “strong look” at the nation’s libel laws. In addition to his attacks against specific news organization and journalists, Trump has labeled the media the “enemy of the people.”
Flake said it would be “a source of great shame in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party,” if Trump’s “unprecedented” assault on the media went unchallenged. The president’s behavior this past year, he added, is reminiscent of similar tactics employed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
“A free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press a guardian of democracy,” Flake said.
If Republicans decide to stand together and stand up to Trump, Flake continued, they can “prevent further moral vandalism” and “resolve to be allies of the truth ― and not partners in its destruction.”
Flake also commented on Trump’s plans Wednesday to hand out something called the “Fake News Awards.” The prizes, the president said, would go to “the most corrupt and biased” news organizations. The White House on Tuesday called the awards a “potential event,” however.
“It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are,” Flake said.
No Republicans were present in the chamber as Flake spoke, except for Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who presided as chair. Two Democrats ― Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar ― stood up to thank Flake for his remarks.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said later he wasn’t surprised by Flake’s speech.
“He hates him,” Inhofe said of Flake’s attitude about Trump. “He’s been doing that for a long time ... I think it’s not a good idea. I just disagree with him. I don’t think it serves any purpose to criticize the president just because you don’t like him.”
Flake’s speech didn’t have the intended effect on the chair of the Republican National Committee. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel took particular issue with the Arizona Republican comparing Trump’s attacks on the press to Stalin, tweeting that he had “gone too far.”
This story has been been updated with Sen. Inhofe’s comments.