The whirling dervish that is Donald J. Trump spun ever-faster on Thursday, shredding almost everything in his range of vision — Hillary Clinton, his fellow Republicans who fail to support him unequivocally, the growing chorus of women accusing him of sexual misconduct, and especially the press.
In just the past 24 hours, Trump threatened to sue The New York Times for recounting the stories of two accusers; he slammed the media for serving, in his telling, as a wing of Clinton's campaign; and he called a reporter from The Associated Press "a sleazebag" for daring to ask him about those accusations.
Trump also denounced a reporter for People magazine who said he forced himself upon her at his Florida estate, as she waited to do an interview of Trump and his wife, Melania. At a rally Thursday, Trump suggested the woman was not attractive enough to merit his attention: "Look at her," he said, before noting, "Look at her words. I don't think so."
Trump noted at the rally Thursday, "The only thing Hillary Clinton has going for herself is the press. Without the press, she is absolutely zero."
He continued on a similar vein: "The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They're a political, special interest, no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity with a total political agenda. And the agenda is not for you, it's for themselves."
Advocates for journalists have taken note.
On Thursday afternoon, the Committee to Protect Journalists declared that a Trump presidency poses a fundamental threat to press freedoms. In a statement, CPJ Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe wrote, "The consequences for the rights of journalists around the world would be far more serious ... embolden[ing] dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own country."
That assessment is unlikely to sway Trump devotees in conservative-leaning states or even suburban voters in such swing states as North Carolina, Nevada, or Ohio. Yet the not-for-profit journalism group's stance is stark and unprecedented. The committee said it was not making a partisan choice but concluded that Trump "represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern [U.S.] history."
As a candidate, Trump has made attacking the media a calling card for months. Reporters from news outlets offering critical coverage often found themselves blacklisted from his public events. Yet Trump's anger has crested, as the scrutiny of his past has intensified, with coverage of his charity, his federal taxes and now these accusations of sexual assault and other misbehavior.
This attack is a pretty rich irony for a candidate propelled in public view by a long trail of tabloid pieces covering his colorful (read: erratic) personal life; his television stardom as a reality show host and beauty pageant executive; and his enshrinement as a pundit worth paying attention to by any network news organization that could get him to sit down or even call in by phone for an interview for an easy ratings boost. His uneven record as a real-estate mogul seemed beside the point.
Indeed for more than a year, Trump's candidacy appeared to exist almost wholly at boisterous rallies televised almost in their entirety and in the television studios where he would bulldoze most of his questioners.
Now the leaked video from an NBC celebrity news show, Access Hollywood, not only set off a torrent of criticism toward Trump for bragging that his celebrity allowed him to make unwanted sexual advances on women, including grabbing them by the genitals. It has also triggered deep rifts at that network. NBC is now negotiating the departure of the second voice on that tape, Billy Bush, who joined its key franchise, the Today show, a few months ago. Some journalists at the network were enraged the story was broken first by The Washington Post.
And Mark Burnett, the creator of NBC's reality show The Apprentice that starred Trump for years, felt compelled to distance himself from Trump, saying he does not condone or support him. Both Burnett and MGM Studios, which now holds the title to The Apprentice, say they cannot release outtakes of Trump from the show but will not say why. The Associated Press earlier reported that Trump had frequently made coarse sexual comments about women who competed or worked on the show based on numerous interviews.
Meanwhile, Trump's attorneys are threatening to bulldoze one of the nation's most vital news organizations. In a letter to the Times, the attorney Marc E. Kasowitz demanded a retraction of its article based on interviews with two women who accused Trump of sexual improprieties. One said Trump groped her and put his hands up her dress while sitting next to her on an airline flight; another said he gave her an unwanted kiss on the lips, as she waited for an elevator inside Trump Tower.
"Your article is reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se," Kasowitz wrote to the Times' executive editor, Dean Baquet. "It is apparent from, among other things, the timing of the article, that it is nothing more than a politically motivated effort to defeat Mr. Trump's candidacy."
The Times' assistant general counsel, David McCraw, sent back an epic letter to say that given Trump's past public statements, including his acquiescence to radio host Howard Stern's "request to discuss Mr. Trump's own daughter as a 'piece of ass'," that the candidate's reputation on such matters could not be further affected. Additionally, McCraw wrote that "it would have been a disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself to silence [the accusers'] voices."
It's not the first time in this campaign has threatened to sue the Times. He made another threat to do so earlier this month, when it revealed the way in which he could have avoided paying federal taxes for years (by reporting more than $900 million in losses) — a possibility he appeared to confirm during last Sunday's town hall debate with Clinton. Trump tweeted, "My lawyers want to sue the failing @nytimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching."
No such suit has yet been filed.
In neither case do First Amendment lawyers see sturdy grounds for a successful suit.
That's not necessarily his purpose. Trump did sue then-New York Times reporter Timothy O'Brien for $5 billion for questioning whether the entrepreneur was worth as much as he said he was. Trump, who later acknowledged he wanted to inflict financial pain on O'Brien ended up settling with him instead. On Thursday, O'Brien wrote that journalists should welcome Trump's lawsuits. In his case, the depositions led to greater insights into how Trump actually operates.
Over the summer, Trump installed Steve Bannon, the former chief of Breitbart News, as his campaign CEO, and disgraced former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is now openly serving as an adviser to Trump. (It is worth remembering that Ailes' disgrace stems from the wave of allegations over the summer that he had sexually harassed many women at Fox News, charges that he, too, denies.)
While some journalists may indeed be sympathetic to Clinton, or at least share CPJ's concerns about Trump's attitudes toward the press, the most stark collusion by media on the campaign trail appears to involve Trump. Just before last Sunday's town-hall debate, Breitbart published an interview with Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused former President Bill Clinton of raping her. Trump then led a discussion with Broaddrick and other women who have accused Bill Clinton of impropriety.
Now, instead of popping up everywhere, Trump has retreated into the beckoning arms of Fox News, as Fox's own Megyn Kelly has acknowledged, particularly the prime-time shows of the sympathetic Sean Hannity.
Hannity, who previously appeared in an online commercial for Trump has all but erased any distinctions between his program and the aims of the Trump campaign. On Thursday evening he has scheduled two full segments with Bill Clinton's accusers in an effort to change the subject.
It is a scorched-earth approach designed to appeal only to the faithful. And in the process, Trump — and Hannity, for that matter — are setting themselves on fire, live, on television. It's quite a show.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's everywhere you look. Multiple news outlets are reporting that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump groped and forced himself on women. Now Trump has launched a war on the media.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN RALLY)
DONALD TRUMP: The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They're a political special interest, no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity with a total political agenda. And the agenda is not for you. It's for themselves.
CORNISH: That's Trump speaking in Florida today. He has denied the women's allegations, and he's threatened to sue The New York Times, which published some of their stories. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from our studios in New York. And, David, how seriously should one take Donald Trump's threat to sue The Times? And how has the paper responded?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, it's not the first time Donald Trump has threatened to sue The Times or to sue other news organizations, even in the course of this campaign. I think he last threatened to sue The Times a month ago when The Times revealed ways in which Trump could have legally avoided close to a billion dollars in taxes - a - an assertion that Trump seemed to validate during the most recent debate town hall when he said, yes, I did.
Trump said he was going to sue The Times. In this case, the paper said, look, you're saying we libeled you. Nothing that we said about these women's accusations in any way can tarnish your reputation more than your own past public statements have done. And it said, furthermore, it would have been a disservice - and I'm quoting here from the letter from the lawyer David McCraw. It would have been a disservice not just to our readers, but to democracy itself to silence their voices - speaking about the accusers. This was newsworthy information, he continues, about a subject of deep public concern. So they're standing by their story.
CORNISH: And we should say this isn't just about The Times at this point. Other news outlets have published similar stories of women saying he forcibly kissed them, groped them and other inappropriate behavior. Are those outlets hearing from Trump, as well?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, apparently a campaign official spoke to a couple of news outlets, saying the Palm Beach Post might similarly face certain kinds of legal repercussions - a lawsuit. They might not have had the same deep pockets that The Times has. And he went out of his way to denigrate a woman who's a reporter from People magazine who gave a personal account of having Trump try to force himself upon her before she did a joint interview with Trump and his wife Melania. He basically denigrated her looks and said that he wouldn't effectively have forced himself upon a woman like that.
CORNISH: Now, Donald Trump has news executives at his side in Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, Roger Ailes, the former chairman of "Fox News." So how is the campaign going forward trying to counter this scandal?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you've seen - you know, this has been this dynamic. He has been attacking the press rhetorically at all kinds of rallies for months. And yet there's always been a rich irony behind those attacks, which is that his candidacy was very much propelled by the consistent amount of coverage his rallies got on particularly cable news broadcast television, but also the number of interviews he did time and again. He has been made a celebrity by as the executive in charge of beauty pageants, but also as a celebrity reality show star, and turned to as a pundit on all these shows, given so much coverage over the months.
So he's did these sort of winking attacks on the press. I don't think it's winking at all anymore. I think he is lashing out at almost anything that's coming in his range of sight, really at these media outlets which have given him so much attention. And he's turned to sort of the safe space of "Fox News" itself - coordinated things with Breitbart News, bringing accusers of Bill Clinton's behavior forward, both before the town hall on Sunday and more recently in certain other interviews and turning to Sean Hannity, in particular, a figure who has been previously a sympathetic figure at Fox toward Trump and now really seems to be part of the Trump campaign, who happens to have a primetime show on "Fox News." He's going to spend time with those same accusers of Bill Clinton later tonight.
CORNISH: That's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.