President Donald Trump posted a short video to his Twitter account on Sunday in which he is portrayed wrestling and punching a figure whose head has been replaced by the logo for CNN.
The video, about 28 seconds long, appears to be an edited clip from a years-old appearance by Trump in WrestleMania, an annual professional wrestling event. The clip ends with an on-screen restyling of the CNN logo as “FNN: Fraud News Network.”
#FraudNewsCNN #FNN pic.twitter.com/WYUnHjjUjg
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
Cartoonish in quality, the video is an unorthodox way for a sitting president to express himself. But Trump has ratcheted up his attacks on the media in recent days — assailing CNN and crudely insulting the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — while defending his use of social media as “modern day presidential.”
In a speech Saturday at a faith rally in Washington, Trump was met with cheers when he referred to CNN as “garbage journalism” and said: “The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House. But I’m president, and they’re not.”
The wrestling video, which was also posted to the official @POTUS Twitter account, stirred criticism, disbelief and dumbfoundedness. Some journalists denounced its portrayal of violence as dangerous, saying it could incite attacks or threats against media employees.
“I think it is unseemly that the president would attack journalists for doing their jobs, and encourage such anger at the media,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times.
The administration did not respond to a request for comment. Trump’s homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, defended the video when he viewed it for the first time during a broadcast interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News. “No one would perceive that as a threat,” Bossert said. “I hope they don’t.”
“He’s a genuine president expressing himself genuinely,” Bossert added.
A version of Trump’s video appeared last week on a Trump-dedicated page on the message board site Reddit, a popular meeting ground for some of the president’s most fervent supporters. The CNN logo is superimposed on what appears to be the head of Vince McMahon, a wrestling magnate and a friend of Trump, who in his pre-presidential years often appeared as a guest on wrestling shows.
Trump’s fans on Reddit were exuberant about what they viewed as validation from the country’s most powerful man. “I love this,” wrote a user identified as American_Crusader. “You know he saw it, chuckled, and knew he could control the media narrative for days by hitting the ‘post’ button. So he did.”
The president’s allies say that his attacks on the media are justified, arguing that the president is merely defending himself from coverage that his supporters view as biased. Trump’s war of words with CNN is especially popular with his voter base.
Media advocates, however, have raised alarms about a recent spate of arrests and assaults on working journalists, including a high-profile episode in which a Montana congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a reporter for The Guardian, breaking his glasses. (Gianforte, a Republican, went on to win a House seat the next day. He later apologized to the reporter.)
Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, which usually focuses on countries where reporters’ freedoms are curtailed, say they are concerned that Trump’s campaign-trail rebukes of news organizations are now being issued from the pulpit of the White House.
“Targeting individual journalists or media outlets, on-or off-line, creates a chilling effect and fosters an environment where further harassment, or even physical attack, is deemed acceptable,” Courtney Radsch, the advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in a statement Sunday, adding that Trump’s comments may embolden “autocratic leaders around the world.”
Trump, who is spending part of the weekend at his Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, posted the wrestling tweet just as prominent Republicans began appearing on the major Sunday news programs. On CNN, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a frequent Trump critic, accused the president of “weaponizing distrust” toward the media.
“There’s an important distinction to draw between bad stories or crappy coverage, and the right that citizens have to argue about that and complain about that,” Sasse said.
But Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, bristled when asked on the NBC program “Meet the Press” about Trump’s string of anti-media remarks.
“This is really remarkable,” Price said to the moderator, Chuck Todd. “Your program — a program with the incredible history of ‘Meet the Press’ — and that’s what you want to talk about?”
Some White House aides said privately on Sunday that the president was being held to a double standard. They argued that Trump’s video was akin to a recent exchange on MSNBC, in which the host, Chris Matthews, was discussing Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and jokingly praised the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for ordering the execution of his son-in-law.
Ari Fleischer, who was a press secretary to President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter that he found Trump’s video to be “in poor taste.” But he added: “The reason POTUS does it is because the press has made themselves so unpopular. It’s a fight POTUS actually wins w much of the country.”
Trump regularly accuses CNN of bias, and he taunted the network last week after it was forced to retract a story about one of his close allies. On Saturday, hours before posting the wrestling video, Trump tweeted to his 33 million followers, “I am thinking about changing the name #FakeNews CNN to #FraudNewsCNN!”
On Sunday, CNN issued its response.
“It is a sad day when the president of the United States encourages violence against reporters,” the network said in a statement. “Instead of preparing for his overseas trip, his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, dealing with North Korea and working on his health care bill, he is involved in juvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office. We will keep doing our jobs. He should start doing his.”
In keeping with the online nature of many of Trump’s disputes, CNN also replied directly to the president on Twitter, highlighting a quotation from a recent White House briefing by his deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“The president in no way form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence,” Sanders told reporters on Thursday. “If anything, quite the contrary.”
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