Of course, Trump's random musing about NBC's broadcast license is the end of civilization

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Published by: Dan Calabrese on Wednesday October 11th, 2017

Fake news, meet fake outrage.

The constitutional power of the president is limited, but his power to get people to do things is limited only by the bounds of his persuasive power. You might think Donald Trump is a little short in that area because he is so widely and deeply reviled. I disagree. Trump is a troll without equal, and his ability to inspire completely insane overreactions to his words and actions is quite something.

Remember, there weren't hundreds of NFL players kneeling for the national anthem until Trump weighed in on the matter. Now the NFL is in a full-blown crisis while Trump is completely unaffected. All he did was offer a throwaway comment at a campaign rally and move on. The NFL proceeded to shoot itself without Trump having to do anything further.

Then there's the media, which Trump sends into apoplectic seizures on an almost daily basis, usually over nothing. Take today's outrage du jour, which is Trump's supposed threat to yank NBC's broadcast license over a news story he didn't like. This, we're told, takes Trump well into the tyrant category where he supposedly was already operating anyway.

But did he really threaten NBC's license? Er, kinda, sorta . . . not really.

Here's how this unfolded. First, NBC published a story claiming Trump stunned Pentagon officials by saying he wanted a tenfold increase to America's nuclear arsenal:

President Donald Trump said he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during a gathering this past summer of the nation’s highest-ranking national security leaders, according to three officials who were in the room.

Trump’s comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve.

According to the officials present, Trump’s advisers, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised. Officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the buildup. In interviews, they told NBC News that no such expansion is planned.

Is this what really happened? I wasn't in the room, and neither was NBC, which won't identify the sources who made the claim. So your guess is as good as mine whether they really said that or if those who did are trustworthy. Trump, however, didn't hesitate to go on the record:

Now like I said, I wasn't in the meeting, but here's my best guess as to what really happened:

I think it's highly unlikely Trump simply made a demand that he wanted a tenfold increase in the nuclear arsenal. The story says Trump was looking at a briefing slide that showed the arsenal on the decline, and he indicated he would rather see the arsenal at the higher end of the curve and now at the lower end.

Now keep in mind, anyone who's leaking to NBC has an axe to grind and has it in for Trump. You understand this is true by definition, right? So some guy is listening to what Trump says about the slide, and thinks to himself, "Damn, if it was at the top of the curve like he wants, that would be a tenfold increase!"

That doesn't mean Trump was really making such a demand. It just means he had a reaction to a slide and someone extrapolated in his mind what that would mean in practice. Then this same person, who doesn't like Trump and has made a habit of running to the press behind Trump's back, calls up his contact at NBC and offers his take on what happened with the interpretation most unflattering to Trump.

And since NBC hates Trump too, it reports it exactly as it was told to them without really having heard what the president said or what he meant.

Is Trump justified in calling that fake news? Hell yes. Because an anoymous person who wasn't supposed to be talking ran to a journalist with a take on the event that was clearly colored by his own antipathy toward the president, and no one bothered to ask the president what he was really getting at with his comment about the briefing slide. Trump is pissed off at the media once again, and he decides to troll. So he follows up his first tweet with this one:

This is a classic Trump troll. He doesn't actually take any action, nor does he direct anyone else to do so. He merely muses about it, and that's enough to send the rest of the media into a fullblown meltdown. This is from the oh-so-serious New York Times:

The comments immediately drew criticism that the president was using his office to undermine First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free press. And, in fact, the networks themselves — and their news departments — do not hold federal licenses, though individual affiliates do.

“Broadcast licenses are a public trust,” said Tom Wheeler, who until January was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appointed by President Barack Obama. “They’re not a political toy, which is what he’s trying to do here.”

In suggesting that a broadcast network’s license be targeted because of its coverage, Mr. Trump once again evoked the Watergate era when President Richard M. Nixon told advisers to make it difficult for The Washington Post to renew the F.C.C. license for a Florida television station it owned. A businessman with ties to Mr. Nixon filed paperwork to challenge the Post’s ownership of the station. The Justice Department under Mr. Nixon also filed antitrust charges against the three major television networks.

Got that? It's Watergate!

Except that it's not. Broadcast licenses are overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. The president appoints the commissioners when there is an opening, but he doesn't determine their agenda and can't order them to revoke a license. He can complain about a network's irresponsible abuse of its license, and joins many other Americans in doing so, but the chances that Trump would actually push the FCC to revoke a broadcast license over this sort of thing is precisely zero.

GDP growth for Obama's final year? A measly 1.6 percent

Trump's aim in tweeting stuff like this is twofold: 1. Make the public more aware of the media's practice of publishing and airing untruths; and 2. Provoke the media to freak out. They take the bait every time.

That said, I think Trump's greater concern should be his own inner circle. A Pentagon or national security official who's leaking details of these briefings to the press is irresponsible in the extreme, regardless of what you think of the president politically. And any president should be free to raise issues and ask questions in such a briefing, without fearing that someone in the room will consider a question stupid and run to the press with a take on it designed to embarrass him. Clearly someone in the White House is more interested in humiliating Donald Trump than he is in serving the country.

Then again, I realize there are those who think humiliating Donald Trump is serving the country. These people host late-night talk shows and spend a lot of time on Twitter, and most people probably take them about as seriously as they deserve. But when you have a job in national security, your job is to help the president govern, not to undermine him.

I hope whoever did this is not only fired, but arrested for violating the Espionage Act and sent to prison. At the very least.

UPDATE: Hat tip to Hot Air's Ed Morrissey for pointing out another reason NBC has nothing to worry about: NBC doesn't have a broadcast license. Broadcast licenses are issued to local broadcast stations, not to networks.

Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!