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There’s a saying in politics: “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
In other words, no politician should tangle repeatedly with the news media. Like so many others, it’s a rule that Donald Trump is violating with impunity.
On Tuesday, at a news conference he called to explain his contributions to veterans groups, Trump suddenly declared war on members of the press sitting no more than 10 feet away.
“You’re a sleaze,” he told a reporter for ABC. It was Tom Llamas, a political reporter, occasional anchor, and (natch) Hispanic journalist for the network.
“Why am I a sleaze?” Llamas asked aloud.
“You’re a sleaze, because you know the facts and you know the facts well,” Trump responded.
The exchange that led Trump to call me a "sleaze." ? pic.twitter.com/dDwsjR4IlF
— Tom Llamas (@TomLlamasABC) May 31, 2016
Trump went on to complain about coverage of the size of one of his rallies and singled out Llamas.
“I'm not looking for credit," — although that was obviously his intent — "but when I raise millions of dollars, have people say like this, like this sleazy guy right over here from ABC. He’s a sleaze in my book.”
A CNN reporter objected: “I disagree with that, sir. It seems as though you’re resistant to scrutiny, the kind of scrutiny that comes with running for president of the United States,” said Jim Acosta, a Cuban-American.
Trump whirled and fired at Acosta.
“Excuse me, I've watched you on television, you're a real beauty,” he said without pretending to admire the man’s looks. It seems clear that Trump watches a lot of TV, especially the three cable networks — Fox, CNN and MSNBC — which cover the presidential campaign pretty much all day, every day.
CNN, which carried the event live, said after the brawl that Trump attacked the press “collectively and at times individually — as ‘dishonest,’ ‘not good people,’ sleazy, and among the worst human beings he has ever met.”
Of course, not every reporter took a beating. Fox News’ Carl Cameron, a favorite of Trump’s, tried to soften the exchange by asking Trump, “Is a question an attack?”
Trump plunged on: “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I've ever met, I have to tell you that. You’re excluded, Carl.”
If Trump weren't so egocentric, he would thank the TV networks for creating and sustaining him. It's been so one-sided some in TV news are worrying how to play fair in this fall's campaign.
There was a time in American history when the press was required to submit questions to a president in writing beforehand. Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the first presidents not to require questions ahead of time. But TV-era presidents have long seen relations with the press as a two-way street. Reporters get to ask questions, presidents get to put their own spin on news.
These days, to speak to their supporters without press filters, candidates for president — led by Trump — have used social media, and especially Twitter, to make their views known. To be sure, reporters comment on those Tweets and share their views. Only a fraction -- 7 percent — of Americans use Twitter, but it’s a growing source of news.
Asked if his hostility to reporters was an indication of what White House news conferences would be like if he were elected, Trump declared: “Yes, it is. It is going to be like this.”
The head of the National Press Club, Thomas Burr, issued a blistering statement that Trump “misunderstands — or, more likely, simply opposes — the role a free press plays in a democratic society.” He declared, “Any American political candidate who attacks the press for doing its job is campaigning in the wrong country.”
Welcome to Trumplandia, 2016.
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets @payneco.
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