Trump's record troubles First Amendment advocates

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Sophie Murguia

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

Donald Trump at a campaign stop at Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. in June 2016.

In some ways, Donald Trump may be one of the most accessible presidential candidates in recent history. But his record on press freedom and transparency has raised serious alarm among journalists and open government advocates.

The Republican nominee frequently holds press conferences and gives one-on-one interviews, and he has enjoyed his ability to get free media attention. In an interview with Bloomberg, Trump said he had “no reason” to meet his original $1 billion fundraising goal because he was receiving so much free media.

“I just don’t think I need nearly as much money as other people need because I get so much publicity,” Trump told Bloomberg. “I get so many invitations to be on television. I get so many interviews, if I want them.” A June report from the research group mediaQuant found that Trump had received free media worth almost $3.5 billion in the past year, compared to just over $1.4 billion for Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, Trump has revoked press credentials from media organizations whose coverage he characterizes as unfair, promised to make it easier to sue journalists for libel and broken with longstanding tradition by refusing to release his tax returns. (His campaign reportedly reinstated the credentials in early September for about a dozen organizations that had been banned.)

In a recent article for The Atlantic, political journalist Ron Fournier called Trump “the least transparent presidential candidate in modern history,” citing Trump’s history of making false claims as well as his vagueness on policy positions and his hostility toward the press.

“He has an extremely unusual love-hate relationship with the press,” said Dick Polman, a national political columnist for NewsWorks and former political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He’s vindictive, but by the same token he craves the access, he craves the visibility, he craves the attention of the press more than anyone I’ve seen before.”

The Trump campaign press office did not respond to a Reporters Committee email inviting comment with a list of questions about Trump’s positions on First Amendment issues.

Politico, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and Univision are among the organizations that have been refused credentials to cover the campaign — or had them revoked. Trump suggested in June that he might add The New York Times to the blacklist, though he didn't follow through.

Sometimes, the bans have been announced, as was the case in June when Trump said on Facebook that he would revoke The Washington Post’s credentials. Trump criticized a headline on the Post’s website that originally read, “Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting.” (It was later changed to “Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting.”)

“Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record-setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post,” Trump’s Facebook post said.

At other times, reporters have been denied access to Trump events without explanation, although the bans have often come shortly after news organizations have published material that is critical or unflattering toward Trump.

The bans have not always been consistently enforced. In the weeks after the Post’s credentials were revoked, for example, Trump gave interviews to Washington Post reporters.

Most reporters who are denied credentials simply enter events as members of the public, but there have been incidents when they were prohibited from doing that. In June, a Politico reporter was asked to leave a Trump rally in California. And in late July, a journalist from The Washington Post was patted down and refused entry to a Mike Pence event in Wisconsin.

“Our events are open to everyone and we are looking into the alleged incident,” Pence’s spokesman Marc Lotter told The Associated Press.

Hadas Gold, a media reporter for Politico, said that although being denied entry to events won’t prevent a good journalist from getting a story, it can make reporting more difficult.

“It delays your reporting, and if you can’t be inside the arena, you can’t gauge the audience’s reaction to the candidate,” Gold said.

In an interview with CNN, Trump said that if he were elected he would not revoke credentials from any White House reporters. Still, many journalists are troubled by Trump’s media blacklist.

“This idea of singling out organizations that anger him is a terrible development, and it’s consistent with other ways that he is showing his hostility to the press,” Polman said. Polman, who has been covering presidential elections since 1988, said he has never seen another campaign withhold press credentials the way Trump’s has.

“I think it’s a very troubling sign that says he doesn’t actually understand or value the role of the press in American democracy,” said Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who has sharply criticized Trump’s media blacklist in her column.

Journalists are also concerned about comments Trump made at a rally in February, when he promised to change libel law so that it would be easier to sue media organizations.

“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” he said.

Trump’s statement has been widely dismissed by critics who say that the president has little power to unilaterally change libel law.

There is no federal libel statute, leaving states to determine what constitutes libel. Short of convincing Congress to pass a libel statute, or bringing a case through the courts in the hope of a favorable ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court — which has limited the reach of libel law, particularly in cases involving public officials and other public figures — Trump has few options.

“A president certainly can wield an influence very indirectly, but this idea that he’s going to somehow issue an executive order about libel laws is very unrealistic, and I think it’s also bluster,” Sullivan said.

“I don’t think anyone can take that seriously at all,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The libel laws aren’t going to change under him. But it’s really the underlying message that he’s sending that is more concerning — that he wants to muzzle the media.”

Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns has been another point of contention.

Although not legally required, it has become common practice for candidates to release their tax returns. If Trump does not release his full tax returns, he’ll be the first major party nominee not to do so since Gerald Ford released only summary data during his 1976 presidential bid not to do so, according to PunditFact.

Trump initially argued that he could not release his tax returns because he is undergoing a routine audit. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, however, told C-SPAN that there was no reason an audit would prevent a taxpayer from releasing his returns. In fact, President Nixon did so in 1973 and a congressional investigation ultimately found he owed nearly $500,000 in back taxes and penalties, which PunditFact estimates would be about $2.3 million today.

Trump has since revised his statement, claiming that “any lawyer would tell you” that it would be unwise to release tax returns while under audit.

“I think that if he were a normal taxpayer and not a candidate for president of the United States, that would be a pretty good reason not to release your tax returns,” said Joseph Thorndike, a law professor and director of the Tax History Project.

But, Thorndike added, most tax lawyers would advise private citizens not to release their returns in any situation.

“The point is that the rules are different — if not legally, at least politically and morally — for candidates,” Thorndike said. “I’m sure that releasing his returns while being audited would be unpleasant for him and might make the audit harder, but that’s not the point.”

Thorndike said that releasing Trump’s tax returns “would essentially allow the whole country to join in his audit” by opening up his taxes to a wider level of scrutiny.

Trump told AP that there is “nothing to learn” from his tax returns, and that the public probably isn’t interested.

Many political scientists and tax experts disagree. Thorndike said that candidates’ tax returns can reveal information about their taxable income, how their businesses operate, charitable donations, potential financial conflicts of interest and effective tax rate.

Meena Bose, a political science professor who directs Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, said it’s possible that Trump’s tax returns won’t turn up anything noteworthy.

“At the same time, for a presidential candidate who has not held elected office previously, there is some interest in his business dealings and his argument that his ability to make deals qualifies him for the presidency,” Bose said.

Some news organizations, including The Washington Post and Vanity Fair, have attempted to reconstruct through public documents what may be in Trump’s tax returns, but without the tax returns, that picture is incomplete.

Thorndike said it is difficult to speculate about what Trump’s tax returns may contain, but “we shouldn’t have to speculate.”

“We have a right to expect transparency from our candidates, even if it’s not legally required,” Thorndike said.