BRIDGEWATER, N.J. â President Trump, who has reveled in his confrontational style with the news media, sparked fierce debate Sunday over whether he is inciting violence against journalists by posting a doctored video clip showing him bashing the head of a figure representing CNN.
Trumpâs latest provocation in his war with the media brought denunciations from Democrats, and some Republicans, who warned that the presidentâs conduct could endanger reporters as he seeks to undermine public trust in reporting about his administration.
âViolence & violent imagery to bully the press must be rejected,â House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote in one of the many comments from elected officials posted on Twitter.
Presidential historians suggested that Trumpâs social media attacks are lowering the bar on what constitutes appropriate presidential conduct in fighting perceived media enemies. H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas, said Republican President Richard Nixon also felt mistreated, but âNixon didnât air his grievances as publicly as Trump does. Weâve never seen anything quite like the ongoing performance of President Trump.â
Meanwhile, White House aides and supporters defended the presidentâs Twitter post as a pointed but harmless barb at what he sees as a hostile press corps. Some said the reaction demonstrated the inflated self-regard of reporters and their inability to take a joke.
Trump, from his Bedminster golf resort in northern New Jersey, defended his use of social media, saying it befitted a âmodern dayâ president.
The latest salvo from Trump came as questions about the political climate for journalists, and their safety, have swirled amid incidents in which politicians have assaulted reporters or had them arrested. During the campaign, some reporters assigned to cover Trump, including ones from CNN, were cursed and threatened by his supporters, who echoed him with chants of âfake news.â
In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that targeting media outlets âcreates a chilling effect and fosters an environment where further harassment or even physical attack is deemed acceptable.â
The organization, which tallies deaths of journalists across the globe, added that the White Houseâs âcharged rhetoric onlineâ makes reporting âmore dangerousâ and âemboldens autocratic leaders around the world.â
Trump had been combative with the news media throughout his campaign and in the first months of his presidency. But his anger and frustration have mounted in recent weeks amid intensive coverage of an FBI investigation into his campaignâs alleged contact with Russian operatives, who U.S. intelligence agencies determined meddled in the presidential election in hopes of aiding Trump.
White House aides have fretted that the presidentâs focus on the investigation has distracted him from building political support for his policy agenda, including a legislative rollback of the Affordable Care Act that is now pending in the Senate. And some of his public statements have embroiled him more deeply in legal questions over his conduct in the probe.
At the same time, the president and his aides believe that his feud with the media, which has included limiting the number of on-camera briefings, has played well with his conservative base. Late Saturday, Trump used a portion of a speech at âCelebrate Freedomâ event at the Kennedy Center, in honor of military veterans and religious groups, to taunt the press.
âThe fake media is trying to silence us, but we will not let them. The people know the truth,â Trump said. âThe fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House, but Iâm president and theyâre not.â
He drew a standing ovation from the crowd, which waved miniature American flags. On Sunday afternoon, Trump posted a video clip of the moment on Twitter.
Aides defended his tweet of the WWE video on Saturday, arguing that Trump has a right to fight what they say is unfair coverage. They suggested that reporters were overreacting to a video first posted several days ago on the popular social media message board Reddit.
âNo one would perceive that as a threat; I hope they donât,â homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said on ABCâs âThis Week.â
Bossert praised Trumpâs ability to âgenuinelyâ communicate with the public, and he echoed a line of defense that other Trump surrogates have employed: that when Trumpâs policies are attacked in the media, he has a right to counterpunch.
âHeâs beaten up, in a way, on the cable platforms,â Bossert said. âHe has a right to respond.â
The video clip was taken from a WWE appearance in 2007 during which Trump body-slammed WWE Chairman Vince McMahon as part of the âBattle of the Billionaires.â Trump, a New York real estate developer and promoter, has had a long association with the WWE and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2013. At the ceremony, McMahon referred to Trump as âa Wrestlemania institutionâ and recalled this episode, which culminated with Trump participating in shaving McMahonâs head in the ring.
On Reddit, users on a pro-Trump message board where the wrestling video meme first appeared celebrated their achievement in getting the president to endorse their work. Some Trump supporters emphasized on social media that the violence in professional wrestling is simulated and that the president was making a symbolic point about âfake newsâ coverage of him.
But Trumpâs critics pointed to Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who body-slammed Ben Jacobs, a reporter for the Guardian, in May â one day before a special election, which he won. Gianforte, who initially denied Jacobsâ account, later apologized to him and was sentenced in court to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger-management classes.
Within seven hours, Trumpâs post of the wrestling video had been âlikedâ 317,000 times and âretweetedâ 198,000 by Trumpâs 33 million Twitter followers â one of his most viral tweets in months. The president also posted the clip to his official White House account.
In recent days, Trump has leveled deeply personal attacks at morning show hosts from MSNBC who have criticized him. On Saturday, he called CNN âfake newsâ that produces âgarbage journalism.â The president and his aides have lambasted the network in the wake of a retracted story that linked a former Trump transition aide to a Russian bank executive. Three CNN employees resigned over the story, which the network said did not go through proper vetting.
In a statement Sunday, CNN called it âa sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters.â The network cited Trumpâs âjuvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office.â
Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer who argued for the publication of the Pentagon Papers before the Supreme Court, described the presidentâs tweet Sunday as âmerely abhorrent,â but fully protected by the constitution.
âI think it is foul. It is repulsive. But it is not illegal,â Abrams said. âThe president has First Amendment rights, too. While he may abuse them sometimes, it takes more than he has done so far to move into the area of illegality.â
David Schulz, another free-speech lawyer, recalled Trumpâs suggestion during the campaign that âSecond Amendment peopleâ might be able to stop Democratic rival Hillary Clinton â a declaration some interpreted as an allusion to gun violence.
That was âa lot closer to the line than this childish screenplay,â Schulz said.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, cited the false âPizzagateâ conspiracy theory that last year prompted a North Carolina man to âself-investigateâ social media claims that a child-sex ring was being run out of Comet Ping Pong, a restaurant in Northwest Washington, by Hillary Clinton.
The man fired a gun inside the restaurant; no one was physically hurt but the man was sentenced to four years in prison.
âNo president has publicized his hatred for the media in the way Donald Trump has,â Naftali said. âItâs not a fake fear. People can be radicalized by things like this.â
Wagner and Gregg reported from Washington. Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.