After Donald Trump’s recent talks with Kim Jong-un, the American president was reportedly impressed with North Korea’s state-run television news and was struck by “how positive the female North Korean news anchor was” toward the brutal dictator. According to a Washington Post report, Trump added “that maybe she should get a job on U.S. television.”
It was a reminder about what the Republican president would like to see from American news organizations. Of course, because journalists at independent outlets are free to report the truth, rather than follow the dictates of an authoritarian strongman, Trump is routinely outraged by coverage of his presidency.
In fact, he apparently believes some recent coverage has bordered on “treason.”
President Trump is continuing to hail his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a win for the United States, but says media coverage of the meeting is “almost treasonous.” In an excerpt of an interview with conservative pundit Mike Huckabee that airs on Saturday, Mr. Trump says that the two leaders came to a “wonderful agreement” in Singapore, but that it’s a “shame that the fake news covers it the way they do.”
“It’s honestly, it’s really almost treasonous, you want to know the truth,” he said. “If you listen to the mainstream media, it’s almost like I lost the negotiation.”
Broadly speaking, there are two relevant angles to this. The first, obviously, is that Trump doesn’t seem to understand just how unimpressive his “deal” with North Korea is. The Republican president made a variety of concessions in exchange for practically nothing, which means the agreement is only “wonderful” to officials in Pyongyang.
“If you listen to the mainstream media, it’s almost like I lost the negotiation”? In reality, it’s not at all necessary to see the talks as a zero-sum affair, with a definite winner and a loser, but if Trump insists on seeing this through a competitive lens, there’s no need for the word “almost.” The American leader gave up a lot in exchange for very little. In negotiating terms, that’s what losing looks like.
But even putting aside these nagging details, no one should be comfortable with a president with authoritarian tendencies casually throwing around words like “treason.”
In January, Trump falsely accused a pair of FBI officials of having committed treason. A month later, while whining that Democrats failed to applaud his State of the Union address to his satisfaction, the president said “they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much” – and then raised the prospect of Democratic “treason.”
Now, evidently, it’s American journalists who’ve covered a news story in a way that, in Trump’s mind, is “almost treasonous.”
I’m not in a position to know whether Trump has any idea what “treason” means. The president has a curious habit of using words and phrases he doesn’t fully understand, and it’s possible Trump thinks “treason” refers to “stuff that the White House doesn’t like.”
The alternative, however, is that the president – who’s offered public praise for the leadership styles of totalitarian leaders and makes little effort to hide his authoritarian tendencies – knows what “treason” means and he sincerely believes the American free press is very nearly guilty of it.
I suppose the obvious question is what, exactly, Trump believes should be the penalty for journalists who offer accurate coverage he dislikes. Criminal charges? Imprisonment? Does he see unflattering reporting as a capital crime?
If it were up to the president, just how similar would journalism be in the United States to what airs in North Korea?