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Republican Sen. Jeff Flake delivered a searing condemnation of President Donald Trump on Wednesday, specifically the way he has employed the term "fake news" to dismiss objective reality and undermine the credibility of the free press.
Trump's attacks on journalists and those who would hold him accountable are "eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them," Flake said. "The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated."
The senator's 15 minute speech painted an ominous picture of a world where dictators are emboldened and free speech is under siege. It also represented a stunning indictment of an American president from a senator of his own party, albeit one who has made little secret of his disgust with Trump's style of governing.
But whereas, in a Senate speech last October, Flake decried the effect that Trump's "undignified" behavior was having on his party, Wednesday's address made it clear that the senator sees Trump as more than merely a domestic menace: To Flake, the president of the United States threatens freedom around the world.
"2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth – more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government," Flake said in a speech on the Senate floor. 2018, he said, "must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power."
The Arizona Republican described how Trump had borrowed a phrase from Stalin, when he called the press "the enemy of the people." The phrase was so dangerous, Flake said, that the Soviet dictator's successor prohibited people from using it.
"So fraught with malice was the phrase 'enemy of the people,' that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of 'annihilating such individuals' who disagreed with the supreme leader," the retiring lawmaker said.
Today, dictators are again waging war against the free press, only this time, they're using Trump's term — fake news — as a cudgel, said Flake. He cited chilling examples, including Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of "fake news" to describe an Amnesty International report, and a state official in Myanmar who denied the existence of the entire Rohingya ethnic group by labeling them "fake news."
"Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language," Flake said. "We are not in a 'fake news' era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere."
But the junior senator from Arizona was not the only representative from the Grand Canyon State Wednesday to publicly condemn Trump's assault on journalism: Flakes colleague John McCain, the state's senior senator, also warned of the long-term damage Trump's "fake news" rhetoric is doing to democracies around the world.
"The phrase "fake news" — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens," McCain wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. In the absence of presidential leadership, he said, it falls to Congress to do more to advance press freedoms, both at home and abroad.
Flake, on the Senate floor, also emphasized the role of Congress in fighting the erosion of trust in the free press. "2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it," he said. "And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible.
"We have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism."