Donald Trump says so many things that are offensive, incorrect, and dishonest that it is often impossible to keep up. In just the past few days, he’s flip-flopped on his tax position, his support for raising the minimum wage, and his so-called Muslim ban. He even denied he imitated a public relations executive in the 1980s named John Miller or John Barron, even though he’s publicly joked about it for years and there’s an audiotape to prove it.
But in the thickets of Trump’s statements there are the occasional views that should terrify every American — and which speak openly to the threat that Trump represents to Americans’ political freedoms. He’s basically giving us a preview of how he will abuse his power as president.
Here’s what he had to say this week about The Washington Post and its owner Jeff Bezos. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s television show, Trump complained that he is being inundated with calls from the paper “asking ridiculous questions.” He also said the paper is going to write a book on him, but “the book is going to be all false stuff because the stories are so wrong,” which suggests that among Trump’s many skills he is able to review the content of books that haven’t been written.
But Trump’s attack on the Post quickly pivoted to a darker place. “This is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos who controls Amazon,” Trump told Hannity. “Amazon is getting away with murder tax-wise. He’s using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.”
This is an oft-repeated claim from Trump, namely that Bezos is using the Post to protect his much bigger prize, Amazon. According to Trump, the negative coverage that he’s received to date from the Post is because Bezos is “worried about me” and he “thinks I would go after him for antitrust because he’s got a huge antitrust problem.”
There is no actual evidence that Amazon’s business interests influence the Post’s anti-Trump position or that Bezos is in violation of antitrust laws. By Trump’s logic, one might think that Bezos owns most of the newspapers in America, considering how many editorial boards around the nation have criticized Trump.
But there’s a good reason why Bezos might be concerned about Trump going after him, if he became president.
Trump said he would.
Back in February, Trump said about Amazon “if I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.” It was a charge he repeated this week. “He [Bezos] bought this paper for practically nothing,” said Trump, “and he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people … and we can’t let him get away with it.”
He also talked about changing libel laws to make it easier to sue newspapers. But his talk about Bezos is something else altogether. What he’s hinting at is that he would use the anti-trust division of the Justice Department to go after a newspaper publisher who writes stories that he doesn’t like.
This is a direct threat. And even if Trump has no intention of following through, he is clearly trying to intimidate Bezos and in turn The Washington Post from running negative stories about him. Indeed, Trump is trying to get Bezos to use his position as owner of the paper to influence the Post’s coverage.
Trump, who is running for an office in which the oath for that position demands he “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” is actively calling for a measure that would violate the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment. In an ordinary democracy, comments like these would practically be disqualifying for a presidential candidate. In America 2016, they barely garner notice. If anything, Trump is using it as a campaign selling point. Perhaps he should create a new tab on his campaign website titled “Planned Abuses of Power.”
It is easy to become inured to Trump’s obnoxiousness, crudeness, and know-nothingness. But, make no mistake, a man who so casually suggests using the awesome powers of the federal government to investigate newspaper owners is a direct threat to our democracy.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.