In an interview with Fox News last night, Donald Trump issued a thinly veiled threat against The Washington Post, suggesting that the paper’s investigations into his background were in fact part of a tax dodging scheme, and hinting that as president, he would crack down on such behavior. Trump’s remarks were a clear attempt to intimidate his political critics, and they should terrify anyone who is concerned about abuse of government power, executive overreach, or freedom of the press.
Trump’s threat came in response to a question about whether he was ready for the rigors of a campaign in which both his likely general election competitor, Hillary Clinton, and news outlets like The Washington Post would be digging into his past. Here is what he said:
Every hour we’re getting calls from reporters from The Washington Post asking ridiculous questions. And I will tell you, this is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder, tax-wise. He’s using The Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.
He’s getting absolutely away—he’s worried about me, and I think he said that to somebody, it was in some article—where he thinks I would go after him for antitrust. Because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much. Amazon is controlling so much of what they’re doing. And what they’ve done is he bought this paper for practically nothing. And he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people. And I’ll tell you what, we can’t let him get away with it.
So he’s got about 20, 25—I just heard they are taking these really bad stories. I mean, they, you know, wrong, I wouldn’t even say bad, they’re wrong. And in many cases they have no proper information, and they’re putting them together, they’re slopping them together, and they’re going to do a book.
And the book is going to be all false stuff because the stories are so wrong. And the reporters—I mean, one after another. So what they are doing is he’s using that as a political instrument to try and stop antitrust, which he thinks I believe he’s antitrust, in other words, what he’s got is a monopoly. And he wants to make sure I don’t get in. So, it’s one of those things. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. What he’s doing’s wrong.
Trump has offered plenty of evidence throughout the campaign that he is a bully who personalizes even the mildest criticism and has no respect for freedom of the press. But even still, this is deeply worrying stuff.
Trump is singling out a media company for its reporting into his candidacy, and then suggesting that the investigations are an attempt by the paper’s owner to avoid a federal investigation into another one of the owner’s businesses, Amazon, under a Trump presidency—an investigation that Trump, by saying that Amazon’s behavior is "wrong," implies he might undertake.
As with nearly all Trump remarks, it is a kind of word salad. But even still, it is difficult to read this as anything other than a threat to use the power of the federal government to crack down on a bothersome political critic.
As he has throughout the campaign and his public life, Trump is advertising his authoritarian tendencies. He has a history of berating companies that outsource operations (those that do can "go fuck themselves") and threatening them with unspecified "consequences" should they leave the country.
And he has repeatedly praised strong authoritarian governments, saying that although the Chinese government’s 1989 massacre of student protesters at Tiananmen Square was "vicious," it was also an effective response to what he described as a "riot." "They put it down with strength," Trump told Playboy in 1989. "That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak."
Trump’s admiration for authoritarian strength has been most visible in his praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, saying last year, "I've always felt fine about Putin. He's a strong leader, he's a powerful leader," and praising Putin’s political popularity. And, most tellingly, he has defended Putin against charges that he has had bothersome journalists killed.
"He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country," is how Trump responded when MSNBC host Joe Scarborough brought up Putin’s habit of killing critical journalists. When pressed further, Trump equivocated. "Well I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe."
Trump is not floating the possibility of violence against Jeff Bezos or The Washington Post. But there is no doubt that his statement last night was a threat—a threat, to be clear, from a major party nominee for president to use the might of the federal government to target the business operations of a critic for the crime of reporting. It may be a mild form of Putinism, but it is Putinism all the same.