WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - US President Donald Trump took his long-running attacks against CNN to a new level on Monday (June 3) by suggesting in a series of tweets that a consumer boycott of its parent company, AT&T, could force "big changes" at the news organisation.
"I believe that if people stoped (sic) using or subscribing to AT&T, they would be forced to make big changes at CNN, which is dying in the ratings anyway," Trump tweeted. "It is so unfair with such bad, Fake News!"
The comment, which Trump tweeted in response to seeing CNN coverage while travelling in London during a European tour, fuelled criticisms that the president was using his power inappropriately to damage real and perceived enemies of the White House.
Historians struggled to cite an equivalent threat even from presidents such as Richard Nixon renowned for their hostility toward the press.
Less democratic nations with more tenuous press freedoms often use government regulatory power, criminal investigations or tax audits to punish news organisations seen as providing unflattering coverage, but past US presidents rarely have taken such public shots at the businesses of the owners of major American news organisations, historians said.
"For a president to call for punitive action against a corporation in an effort to shape news coverage is, to say the least, highly unusual," said presidential biographer Jon Meacham.
"It's the kind of behaviour more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, not democratic ones."
Both AT&T, which acquired CNN in last year's merger with Time Warner, and CNN declined to comment. The White House did not respond to requests for further comment on the president's views or on the reaction from historians and critics.
Trump frequently has criticised major American news organisations, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, and taken punitive actions against their journalists. Trump also has repeatedly criticised and mocked the Post's owner, Jeff Bezos, and attacked the technology giant he founded, Amazon.
"He wants to sanction - and he wants the public more importantly to sanction - news organisations that produce news coverage that he doesn't like," said Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian and a CNN contributor. "The frequency and intensity of it is unusual."
Trump has displayed particular animus toward CNN. He tweeted a video in 2017 that showed him tackling and pummelling a person with a CNN logo superimposed over his head.
The president also has close ties to CNN rival Fox News, whose commentators often are quoted by Trump in tweets and whose former employees have occupied key positions in Trump's White House.
When AT&T sought to acquire Time Warner, then the parent company of CNN, Trump repeatedly complained about the deal, publicly and privately. He instructed aides such as Gary Cohn and Rob Porter to call the Department of Justice to block the deal, according to people familiar with the matter.
No call was made to DOJ, one of the officials familiar with the matter said, and Trump was told that the decision had to be free of political interference from the White House. People who heard the comments said it was sometimes unclear if he was giving an official order or just venting.
The Justice Department, however, did seek to block the US$85-billion merger over allegations that the deal violated federal antitrust laws before losing in court to AT&T. Department officials denied that their decisions were influenced by the White House, but Trump continued to bring up the subject repeatedly and bragged to aides that his attacks on CNN had driven down their ratings.
Gene Kimmelman, who was a Justice Department antitrust official under President Obama, said Trump's tweets raised questions about whether the White House is letting the president's views of news organisations affect how the administration handles enforcement and regulatory matters.
"For the president to try to tilt the marketplace in favor of one outlet or another is dangerous to our democracy and the marketplace of ideas," said Kimmelman, now president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.
Trump's tweets had no obvious immediate impact on the value of AT&T, which is based in Dallas and is considered the world's largest telecommunications company, with more than 260,000 employees. The company's stock ended the trading day up nearly 1.7 per cent on a weak day overall for Wall Street.
Industry analyst Craig Moffett said AT&T is likely to weather the political turbulence without trouble, in part because customers rarely change cellular services. He said that Wall Street once would have been worried far more about a hostile tweet from the president.
"AT&T's stock would have swooned in response," Moffett said. "Now, investors, and just about everyone else, simply roll their eyes and go about their day. The stock market's yawn in response to this morning's tweet tells you everything you need to know."