We are in the midst of some truly uncertain times. While the COVID-19 coronavirus global pandemic is rightfully dominating news cycles, the disease is not the only element affecting our radically changing way of life. The Trump 2020 presidential campaign has inched in the direction of censoring the media with their letters threatening TV stations for running an anti-Trump political ad.
The ad in question was funded by the Priorities USA Action Fund, a pro-Biden super pac. In the 30 second ad, a string of audio clips are played while a graph with an exponential curve tracking the number of COVID-19 cases in the US is drawn on screen. The audio clips are from President Donald Trump‘s many speeches in which he downplayed the COVID-19 threat, made several predictions that turned out to be false while boasting his scientific prowess. The commercial ends with Trump asserting that he “[doesn’t] take responsibility at all” before the screen goes black and text appears stating “America needs a leader we can trust.”
The ad has drawn heavy pushback from pro-Trump parties, and TV stations who intend on airing the ad have fallen under fire. The pro-Trump super pac, America First Action, were the ones who initially demanded that the ad be pulled. After the TV stations blew off those demands, for a variety of reasons that include the super pac not having the authority to make such a demand, Trump’s lawyers got involved.
Lawyers for the Donald J Trump for President campaign—the official Donald Trump campaign—sent cease and desist letters to the TV stations that included threats to revoke their broadcast licenses. Direct quotes from the letter are below:
“Your station has an obligation to cease and desist from airing [the ad] immediately to comply with FCC licensing requirements, to serve the public interest, and to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation.”
“We formally demand that your station refuse to continue airing it to meet your responsibilities not to broadcast false information.”
“Your station has a responsibility to ‘protect the public from false, misleading or deceptive advertising,’ … your failure to remove this deceptive ad … could put your station’s license in jeopardy.”
Why the Controversy?
The crux of Trump’s issue with this ad is that he believes it is “patently false, misleading, and deceptive,” and particularly the audio clip where he says “this is their new hoax.” The Trump campaign has been distancing themselves from and re-framing that sound bite since the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak started ramping up in the US. Trump’s campaign insists that he was describing the politicization of the coronavirus as a new Democrat hoax, not the virus itself. Trump’s full quote which the “new hoax” audio clip is pulled from is below:
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, ‘How’s President Trump doing?’ They go, ‘Oh, not good, not good.’ They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa, they can’t even count. No they can’t. They can’t count their votes.”
“One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning, they lost, it’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We’re 15 people [cases of coronavirus infection] in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.”
Why is this Scary?
Regardless of whether you believe the ad simply proves Trump’s point regarding politicizing the virus, or if you believe the ad makes a fair point and Trump is merely arguing in his brand of semantics, the action his campaign is taking is disconcerting.
Campaign ads have always been fair game and super pacs fighting it out is a part of the American election process. The official presidential reelection campaign stepping in and threatening not only legal action, but the revocation of TV stations’ broadcasting licenses for airing an opposition ad is censorship at play. It becomes even more worrying when the threat is backed by a federal authority—the FCC—that the president oversees.
As a journalist, that slippery slope is even more daunting when you take into consideration other recent governmental developments. For example, the proposal to suspend habeus corpus and allow indefinite detention or the suspension of enforcement of environmental laws by the EPA, both brought about “due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.” These types of sweeping legislation highlight an attitude that seems to be inching towards authoritarian tendencies. That shift is even more worrisome considering the many times that Trump has praised authoritarian rulers.