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Trump calls NBC nuke item fake, brings up license

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump broached Wednesday the use of the federal government's power to license television airwaves to target NBC, in response to a report by the network's news division that he had contemplated a sharp increase in the nation's nuclear arsenal.

A story aired and posted online Wednesday morning reported that Trump said during a meeting this summer that he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, stunning some members of his national security team. It was after this meeting that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly said Trump was a "moron."

Trump objected to the report in two messages on Twitter later Wednesday and described how the power of the federal government might be used to retaliate.

"Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a 'tenfold' increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!" he wrote. "With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?" he added. "Bad for country!"

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He repeated his complaint later in the day, when reporters arrived in the Oval Office to cover his meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it," Trump said.

Asked if he favored limits on what the media can say, he answered, "No. The press should speak more honestly."

In a tweet Wednesday night, he accused "network news" of being "so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked."

The comments drew criticism that the president was using the power of his office to undermine First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free press. And, in fact, the networks themselves -- and their news departments -- do not hold federal licenses, although individual affiliates do.

"Broadcast licenses are a public trust," said Tom Wheeler, who until January was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and was appointed by President Barack Obama. "They're not a political toy, which is what he's trying to do here."

Wheeler said Trump's threat could also be taken as instruction by his supporters who could act on his behalf.

"This sounds to me like another dog whistle for folks to file against the license renewals," he said. "Clearly it would be a bridge too far for the Trump FCC to move on their own initiative. But if some conservative groups were to take this as their marching orders, it would be an interesting situation to see what the Trump FCC did."

Shortly after the tweet, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., wrote a letter to Ajit Pai, the current FCC chairman, who was appointed by Trump, urging him to protect First Amendment rights.

"I ask for your commitment to resist the president's request and call on you to publicly refuse to challenge the license of any broadcaster because the president dislikes its coverage," Markey wrote.

Pai did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the president's tweet, nor did the White House.

The NBC story said Trump raised the idea of increasing the nuclear arsenal during a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon. Shown briefing slides illustrating the reduction of nuclear weapons since the 1960s, the president said he wanted a major buildup instead.

National security officials, said to have been surprised by the president's suggestion, explained that such a move would contravene decades of efforts to curb nuclear weapons and violate several treaties signed by the United States under Republican and Democratic presidents.

The network cited three officials who were in the room but did not identify them. As the meeting broke up, Tillerson was heard making his "moron" comment. Tillerson did not deny using the word when asked by reporters last week, but later sent out a spokesman to deny it on his behalf. In an interview posted Tuesday, Trump said he considered that "fake news" -- but also said that, if it were true, he could beat Tillerson in an IQ contest.

While its members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the FCC is a separate agency mandated to act independently from the White House.

NBC, like ABC, CBS, Fox and CNN, are television networks that do not license spectrum. Therefore, there are no licenses held directly by networks that create programs, which are then pushed out to television stations to run over airwaves and into American homes.

But NBC's parent company, Comcast, does own television stations that do license airwaves from the FCC, as do CBS and ABC's parent company, Walt Disney. But the networks themselves, and NBC News, in particular, do not license airwaves.

A Section on 10/12/2017

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