WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Flake castigated President Donald Trump on Wednesday for his attacks on the media, saying Trump had embraced the despotic language of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and inspired modern-day authoritarians.
In a rare intra-party rebuke from the Senate floor, Flake said Trump’s portrayal of the press as “the enemy of the people” and repeated White House references to “fake news” and “alternative facts” had spurred copycats such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until he died in 1953, used the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe those he wanted annihilated. Trump’s use of the phrase “should be a source of great shame,” Flake said.
Flake, 55, an Arizona conservative who has frequently feuded with Trump, described himself in October as out of step with his party and said would not seek re-election. His term ends in January 2019.
“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. ... This is reprehensible,” Flake said.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, responding to Flake’s speech, said the senator was an attention-seeker. “He’s not criticizing the president because he’s against oppression,” Sanders said at a White House briefing. “He’s criticizing the president because he has terrible poll numbers and he is, I think, looking for some attention.”
Trump’s attacks on the media in response to critical stories about him have been a staple of his Twitter feed and he tweeted in February 2017 that “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!”
That same month, Assad was quoted as dismissing charges of human rights violations at a military prison as “fake news.” In the Philippines, Duterte lashed out on Tuesday at a “fake news outlet” known for challenging his government.
Noting Trump had said he will give out awards for “the most corrupt and dishonest” media, Flake said: “It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle.”
Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday evening that his “FAKE NEWS winners” could be found on the Republican National Committee website. The link, which was broken for 90 minutes, listed 10 stories by news outlets. An 11th item was coverage of “RUSSIA COLLUSION!” that Trump called a “hoax.”
In a second Twitter post, Trump said there were also “many great reporters I respect.”
The other Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, aimed similar criticism at Trump on Wednesday in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.
“Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets,” wrote McCain, who is fighting aggressive brain cancer. “This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit.”
In his clashes with Trump, Flake has called his behaviour sometimes “reckless, outrageous and undignified” and criticized the president in a book that made the New York Times best-seller list last year.
On Twitter, Trump has referred to the senator as “Flake(y)” and said Flake dropped his re-election bid because he was doomed to lose. He also has called Flake ineffective, “toxic” and weak on issues such as crime and border security.
Still, Flake has voted for Trump’s policies. He supported Republican tax overhaul legislation last month and voted for unsuccessful bills to repeal and replace Obamacare, both efforts backed by Trump.
Flake laid some “official untruths” at Trump’s door on Wednesday and said the most vexing was his labelling as a “hoax” the investigation of alleged ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign. “To call the Russia matter a ‘hoax’ ... is a falsehood,” Flake said.
“We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat,” he said. “It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter.”
Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney