WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) criticized President Donald Trump for his attacks on the news media on Wednesday, telling lawmakers from the Senate floor that “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.”
The speech came on the same day that Trump has said that he would participate in a “Fake News Awards,” although it was unclear whether the president will follow through on that event. Flake said it “beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.”
Flake has been a vocal critic of the president, but has voted for much of his legislative agenda. He is not running for re-election.
In his speech, Flake said “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. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. ‘The enemy of the people,’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.”
He even made comparisons to an infamous Soviet dictator, saying “it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.”
Flake chided Trump for his attacks on the media for reporting on everything from the inaugural crowd size to the president’s contention that there was massive voter fraud in the 2016 election. He also cited Trump’s characterization of the Russia investigation as a “hoax.”
“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,” he said.
A full transcript of Flake’s speech is here.
Arizona’s other senator, John McCain, a fellow Republican, wrote and op-ed in the Washington Post on Wednesday that also raised alarms about Trump’s attacks on the media.
He wrote, “Trump’s attempts to undermine the free press also make it more difficult to hold repressive governments accountable. For decades, dissidents and human rights advocates have relied on independent investigations into government corruption to further their fight for freedom. But constant cries of ‘fake news’ undercut this type of reporting and strip activists of one of their most powerful tools of dissent.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shot back at Flake, telling reporters that she “found it quite interesting that he is coming out to attack this president considering he’s one who was recently defending an actually oppressive regime. He went to Cuba a few weeks ago and served as a mouthpiece for the Cuban government.”
She accused Flake of “looking for some attention.”
“He’s not criticizing the president because he’s against oppression. He’s criticizing the president because he (Flake) has terrible poll numbers,” she said.
Only two senators were present in the chamber to listen to the speech: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about it on Wednesday afternoon and told reporters that he had not yet seen it. He also declined to say whether it was appropriate for Trump to have a “Fake news awards.”
“We all have a job to do,” McConnell said.