Senator John McCain has warned that suppression of a free press is “how dictators get started”, criticizing Donald Trump’s continued declaration that newspapers and news networks are “the enemy of the American people”.
“I hate the press,” McCain told NBC’s Meet the Press in an interview, taped at a security conference with European leaders in Munich.. “But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it.”
“I’m very serious now, if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” he continued. “Without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
The Republican party’s presidential nominee in 2008, McCain has repeatedly criticized Trump’s ideas as a candidate and now as president. The interview, broadcast Sunday, was taped not long after the president tweeted on Friday night that he considered the media “the enemy of the American people”.
On Saturday, Trump went further at a campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Florida. “When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it,” he told fans.
A day later, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, told CBS’s Face the Nation that “you should take it seriously” when Trump threatens the media. Priebus called recent news stories about the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia “inaccurate, overstated” and “total garbage”, but he did not specify what he disputed in the articles.
Pressed on the question, Priebus said his issue was with leaks from government agencies. “I think that the media should stop with this unnamed source stuff, put names on a piece of paper and print it,” he said. “If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed.”
Priebus later changed his approach, telling NBC that Trump does not dispute the role journalists play in the US. “The president believes in the first amendment, the president believes in the free press.”
Also on Saturday, the progressive senator Bernie Sanders warned: “According to Trump, if you want the truth, ignore everything except what he is saying. That’s what totalitarianism is all about.”
In the interview, McCain said he was not alluding to any one remark, but rather a pattern of authoritarian leaders who quickly attempted “a consolidation of power”.
“When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press,” he said. “And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”
McCain withdrew his endorsement from Trump late in the 2016 campaign, after a 2005 video emerged in which the businessman bragged about groping women and several women accused him of aggressive advances without consent. The senator first clashed with Trump in 2015, when the former reality TV show star dismissed McCain’s service in Vietnam, saying he was not a war hero. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said.
The senator has since criticized Trump’s restrictions on travel from seven Muslim-majority nations and urged a bipartisan select committee to investigate the alleged links between Trump’s campaign and powerful officials in Russia. in the interview, McCain said he worried “about the president’s understanding of some of these issues and his contradictory articulations”.
Asked whether the Republican leadership in Congress would allow a fair and thorough investigation of a president in their party, McCain was equivocal. “I hope so. And I have to believe so,” he said. “More hope than belief.”
McCain has voted to confirm all of Trump’s cabinet nominations except one, the Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, because of a disagreement over cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. In the interview, he similarly suggested he was willing to give the president leeway within Congress’ rights to reject nominees and control the White House’s purse.
“I think we should give the president the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “But at the same time, we have our responsibilities of advise and consent.”