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Trump asking if DOJ could investigate 'SNL' was a dictator move

I should know. I've worked on "SNL" staff — and I've seen friends persecuted by authoritarians.
Photo illustration: A yellow scribble across an image of Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.
No laughing at authoritarians!Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Before Donald Trump launched his war on our democracy, there was his very public war on comedy — or at least on those who dared to mock his self-inflated sense of majesty. Now new reporting shows that while in the White House, Trump wanted to use his power as president to shut down “Saturday Night Live.”

I can hear it now: “Live from New York, it’s your show canceled for mocking Donald Trump!” (Cut to the audience in stunned silence — except for a few Trump fans who applaud wildly.) And having seen up close the way authoritarians crack down on comedy and satire, I absolutely believe that Trump would’ve turned off the lights in NBC’s famed Studio 8H forever if given the chance.

The new report fits a pattern from the pathetically thin-skinned Trump, who has spent years publicly lashing out at TV shows and comedians who ridicule him — from calling for "SNL" to be canceled in the closing days of the 2016 campaign to taking time in the middle of a 2018 campaign rally to slam the late night hosts Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmell.

As The Daily Beast reported Tuesday, Trump apparently did more than just whine about comedy shows mocking him — in March 2019, he asked his advisers if the federal government could investigate the comedians and their TV shows in the hopes of silencing them. The then-president was reportedly triggered by a rerun of an "SNL" episode that mocked him. (It says so much about Trump that he publicly claims to hate "SNL" but was watching a rerun of the show.)

I can hear it now: “Live from New York, it’s your show canceled for mocking Donald Trump!”

When Trump was told by his advisers that nothing could done to punish the show — presumably because of this little thing called the First Amendment — “Trump seemed disappointed to hear that there was no actual legal recourse or anything that” the Federal Communications Commission or Department of Justice “could do to punish late-night, anti-Trump comedy,” the Beast reported.

In response to the story, Trump issued a “denial” that actually supports the crux of the new reporting. Trump claims he never directly asked the Justice Department to investigate "SNL" — but the article said he asked advisers if the DOJ or FCC could investigate. In his statement, Trump again accuses "SNL" of being involved in possible election crimes, writing that the “one sided” show “should be considered an illegal campaign contribution.”

Here’s the reality: Trump was simply asking his advisers to investigate what he was publicly fuming about. In February 2019, Trump tweeted that "SNL" “should be looked into” for its “hit job” on him. He followed up weeks later — right around the time that he was reportedly asking his aides for options on potential retribution — with a tweet that "SNL’s" continued jokes at his expense were so unfair that he asked, “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?”

Trump, like all dictators (or in his case, a wannabe dictator), hates being mocked.

Trump, like all dictators (or in his case, a wannabe dictator), hates being mocked. This is the same guy who refused to attend the White House Correspondent’s Dinner as president, given the odds that he would’ve been ridiculed on a national stage. “Strongmen” leaders like Trump want and need to be feared to stay in power. The last thing they want is people laughing at them.

I saw this firsthand when I was a full-time comedian, often performing stand-up across the Middle East (I’m of Arab heritage, if the last name didn’t tip you off). I, along with other comedians, were told before shows in the region that no jokes were allowed mocking the leader of that country.

My friend and fellow comedian Bassem Youssef found out the hard way what happens when you tell jokes about a leader who has the power to punish. In 2013, Youssef — known as the “Jon Stewart of the Middle East” — hosted a wildly popular TV comedy show in Egypt where he told jokes at the expense of the Egyptian leader at the time, Mohamed Morsi. In response, Youssef was investigated and arrested by Morsi’s government. Although no charges were ever filed, the message was sent that jokes about the leader come at a price.

Youssef’s problems got worse when Egypt’s current leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — a person Trump referred to in 2019 as “my favorite dictator” — came to power in 2014. After Youssef again delivered comedic material critical of El-Sissi, it was made clear to him that he needed to leave Egypt for his and his family’s safety. Today, Youssef and his family live in exile in the United States.

But this is not just an Arab world thing. It’s an authoritarian thing. A 25-year Russian comedian fled Russia in January 2020 when he learned Russian authorities were investigating him for his jokes at the expense of another Trump BFF, President Vladimir Putin.

I worked on the production staff of "Saturday Night Live" for eight seasons, back when there was a tsunami of jokes made at the expense of then-Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The shows then were filled with comedy about Clinton’s (numerous) sex scandals and Bush’s weakness: speaking English.

Neither Clinton nor Bush ever publicly whined that the jokes were unfair or called for the show to be punished for getting laughs at their expense. Why? They understood that comedically mocking a president is part of what makes our nation a robust democracy. Political comedy — at its best — is about speaking truth to power and bringing the mighty down to earth with a well-crafted joke, opposed to Trump’s idea of comedy, which was typified by his cruelly mocking a disabled reporter for laughs.

But Trump doesn’t believe in any of that.

Trump is cut from the same cloth as despots, dictators and others who despise democracy. Does anyone doubt for a moment that if Trump could shut down comedy shows or even imprison comedians who mock him that he would? And if Trump ever returns to the presidency, he will undoubtedly use the apparatus of government to punish those who challenge his rule. That clearly includes comedians.