On November 17, 1734, the editor of the New-York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, was arrested for printing seditious libel against the Royal Governor of New York, William Cosby. The Governor had ordered Zenger’s paper to be publically burned earlier that year. No indictment was brought and Zenger was released. This case remains the classic case for freedom of the press.
In reflecting on this case while watching events unfold over the first week of the Trump years, there was concern whether we would soon be witnessing moves such as the FCC withdrawal of broadcasting licenses or restrictions on cable TV broadcast. Unfortunately for the new President, no one has yet to determine how to control the internet or regulate it; although the Trump Administration may well make it a priority.
The President’s personal hyper-sensitivity to the behavior of a free press and Steve Bannon’s disrespect of the media as well as probably the entire First Amendment if not the entire Constitution, makes one wonder what will give in first; Trump’s thin skin and his inability to accept criticism or the transformation of the celebrity magnate into a skilled statesman. In Bannon’s case it is an ideological problem considering his disdain and disregard for democracy. For President it seems, so far, to be more personal and psychological.
Curiously after at least temporarily creating a major disruption in U.S.-Mexico relations on Thursday, President Trump turned around and he apparently initiated a one hour telephone call attempt to reset the relationship. Similarly on the public stage at least, Trump handled his mini-press conference with Theresa May with proper etiquette and style. It does not explain, however, why the White House made such a big point of announcing a day in advance that the President would be calling Putin on Saturday. It is becoming quite a ride.
For his public supporters and especially for the Republican Party, their first engagement with the President was hardly as smooth as they probably would have liked. It appears that the Republican leadership has no sense of how much leading Trump intends to do or how much following. Lots of bluster and executive orders do not run the country. It remains to be seen—and it will take some months to determine—if Trump wants to develop a working relationship with Congress. Trump needs to recognize that he cannot just order that a fence be built, he needs to obtain the funds from somewhere to pay for it. He may be America’s CEO but he is not the only shareholder of a private corporation. At some point some Members of his own Party may well call him out on his actions, and then the in-fighting will get serious.