During a brief, eight-minute Q&A with reporters yesterday, Donald Trump was asked why he keeps insisting that Joe Biden is "a criminal." The president struggled to answer with any specificity, saying instead, "He is a criminal. He's a criminal.... Joe Biden is a criminal."
But as part of the same exchange with Reuters' Jeff Mason, the Republican went considerably further.
"And you know who's a criminal? You're a criminal for not reporting it. You are a criminal for not reporting it.... Let me tell you something: Joe Biden is a criminal, and he's been a criminal for a long time. And you're a criminal, and the media, for not reporting it."
For several years, Trump has repeatedly suggested he considers words like "criminal" and "illegal" to be synonymous with "stuff Donald Trump doesn't like."
But this is a rather extreme example of the phenomenon.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University, said the president's rhetoric yesterday is an example of "what authoritarians do." Quite right. Complicating matters, we've confronted a few too many related examples of Trump embracing authoritarian tactics -- both in style and in substance -- but telling a reporter he's "a criminal" for overlooking a story the president wants to see is the stuff of tin-pot dictators.
But let's not brush past the specific reporting Trump expects journalists to pursue. At issue is last week's convoluted anti-Biden smear published by the New York Post, which even staffers at the conservative tabloid want nothing to do with, and which is suspected of being part of a Russian disinformation campaign.
Or put another way, according to the sitting president of the United States, American journalists are "criminals" unless they bring to the public discredited allegations that may be part of a hostile foreign influence operation.
Under normal circumstances, this would seem insane. Under Donald Trump's presidency, his "criminal" rhetoric generated only modest attention, because it was a relatively normal Monday for the Republican incumbent.