Republican Sen. Jeff Flake harangued President Donald Trump on Wednesday, lambasting the president’s attacks on the media during his first year in office and describing what he said were dangerous implications worldwide.
In a Senate floor speech, Flake mocked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for coining the phrase “alternative facts” and blasted the president for what he called an “unrelenting daily assault … that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted,” including the declaration last February that the press is the “enemy of the American people.”
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The retiring Arizona lawmaker and frequent Trump critic said former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s (D-N.Y.) proposition that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” has “likely been tested more severely” in the Trump era “than at any time in our history.”
“2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government,” Flake said.
Flake’s blistering remarks, excerpts of which were released over the weekend by his office, were designed to pre-empt the president’s so-called Fake News Awards. Trump said on Jan. 2 that he would present awards for the “most dishonest & corrupt media” of the year on the following Monday, though he later delayed it until Wednesday, Jan. 17.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t clear whether the president’s fake news awards were real. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday referred to it as a “potential event,” and the president’s schedule Wednesday made no mention of any such awards.
Flake said Trump’s press criticism borrowed from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who called opponents “enemies of the people” — a term former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev forbade because Stalin had used it for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with him.
“This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements,” Flake continued. “And, of course, the president has it precisely backward — despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”
Flake declined to “inventory all of the official untruths of the president’s career” — his speech lasted only 15 minutes, and the president has uttered more than 2,000 false or misleading statements since taking office, according to a Washington Post database. But Flake highlighted some of the president’s most memorable inaccuracies, including the false claim that he drew a larger inauguration crowd than President Barack Obama, the evidence-free conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the U.S., false allegations of widespread voter fraud, and incorrectly saying special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election is a “hoax.”
Russia’s meddling did occur and presents a threat to both American sovereignty and the nation’s national security, Flake said, warning that denials leave the U.S. vulnerable to additional attacks.
“We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single Cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one,” Flake said. “What might seem like a casual and routine untruth — so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington — is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.”
Flake said falsehoods erode trust in America’s institutions and stressed that other countries are watching. He pointed to dictators such as Syria’s Bashar Assad, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, who have all over the past year cried “fake news” to avoid media criticism.
“The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated,” Flake said. “This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.”
Flake also noted the dangers journalists face around the world, including reports that 80 were killed last year and that the number of imprisoned journalists has reached a record high.
“2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it,” Flake said, calling on his colleagues to join him because “the truth needs as many allies as possible.”
“Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism,” he continued. “Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.”