WASHINGTON: A maverick senator from Donald Trump's own Republican party launched a stinging attack on the president on Wednesday (Jan 17), accusing him of employing Stalinist language to "slur" and undermine the free press.
Arizona lawmaker Jeff Flake levelled the broadside in an address from the Senate floor, timed to coincide with the expected announcement of controversial "Fake News Awards" by Trump's administration.
Delivering a one-two punch after veteran Republican John McCain penned an op-ed assailing Trump's spoof awards, Flake slammed what he called the president's dangerous disregard for the truth, and his designation of the mainstream news media as an "enemy of the people."
"Mr President, 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," said the senator, an outspoken critic of the president who is not seeking re-election this year.
"They are shameful, repulsive statements and of course the president has it precisely backward," Flake added. "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 does not suit him 'fake news,' it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press."
Turning the tables on the president, Flake accused him of leading an "unrelenting daily assault" on the constitutionally protected right to free speech, even as his White House coined the term "alternative facts" "as justification for what used to be called old fashioned falsehoods."
"2017 was a year which saw the truth - objective, empirical, evidence-based truth - more battered and abused than any time in the history of our country, at the hands of the biggest figure in our government," Flake said.
"Without truth and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr President, our democracy will not last," he warned.
From his longtime questioning of Barack Obama's birth certificate, to his dismissal of what US intelligence agrees was a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election as a "hoax," to his "pernicious fantasies" about electoral fraud, Flake accused Trump of weakening trust in American institutions - while emboldening despots around the world.
Citing the examples of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte or Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, who have all employed the term "fake news" in recent months, he charged that Trump was encouraging brutal and authoritarian regimes around the world to persecute the press.
"This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr President," Flake said. "Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press but inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language."
At loggerheads with much of the US news media since his election, Trump tweeted last week that he would be awarding "Fake News Awards" to the "most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media" this Wednesday - but the White House has remained evasive on whether the controversial event, already once delayed, would take place.
"It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle yet here we are," Flake said - urging his fellow lawmakers to take a stand.
"Together we have it within us to turn back these attacks, to right these wrongs and repair this damage and restore reverence for institutions and prevent further moral vandalism," he said.
Quoting figures from the International Federation of Journalists which reported the deaths of more than 80 journalists last year, Flake said Trump's "reflexive slurs" were an affront to their sacrifice.
Flake's Arizona colleague and fellow Trump critic McCain, took an identical stance in an opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled "Mr President, stop attacking the press."
"Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy," McCain warned.
"The phrase 'fake news' - granted legitimacy by an American president - is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens," he wrote.
Citing the Committee to Protect Journalists, McCain noted that 2017 was one of the most dangerous years on record for the profession, with 262 journalists jailed over their work - 21 of them on charges of "fake news."