John McCain warns that suppressing free press is “how dictators get started.”

John McCain: Suppressing Free Press Is “How Dictators Get Started”        

John McCain: Suppressing Free Press Is “How Dictators Get Started”        

The Slatest
Your News Companion
Feb. 19 2017 8:20 AM

John McCain: Suppressing Free Press Is “How Dictators Get Started”        

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Senator John McCain speaks on the first day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, southern Germany, on February 17, 2017.

THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images

Senator John McCain continued to show he is one of the few Republican leaders willing to stand up to President Donald Trump, by starkly warning that the commander in chief was sounding an awful lot like a burgeoning dictator. In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, McCain didn’t hesitate when he was asked about the president’s controversial tweet that specifically named several media outlets and called them the “enemy of the American people.”

"I hate the press. I hate you especially," McCain said. "But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It's vital." The Arizona senator who has just been reelected to another six-year term added that in order to “preserve democracy” a “free and many times adversarial press” is essential. “That’s how dictators get started,” he continued. “They get started by suppressing a free press. In other words, a consolidation of power. When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.”

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McCain made sure to emphasize that he wasn’t saying “President Trump is trying to be a dictator” but rather that “we need to learn the lessons of history.”

The Arizona senator spoke to NBC shortly after he took his criticism of the commander in chief internationally, telling the Munich Security Conference in Germany that the administration was in “disarray” and the Western world is in peril. McCain never actually mentioned Trump by name but the message was clear as he lamented a shift away from the “universal values” that brought together the NATO alliance decades ago. He added that the founders would be “alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies” and by “the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants and refugees and minority groups—especially Muslims.”

McCain wasn’t alone in defending the press in Munich. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen told the conference she was concerned about Trump’s attacks on the press. "The real danger is the president’s criticism of the media," Shaheen said. "A free press ... is very important to maintaining democracy, and efforts on the part of a president to undermine and manipulate the press are very dangerous."

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel took up the theme and defended the press: "I have high respect for journalists. We've always had good results, at least in Germany, by relying on mutual respect."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.