Few paid much attention. Many news organizations, including the Times, determined the accusation wasn’t even worth reporting, a sign of how inured we’ve grown to such rhetorical recklessness. But this new attack crosses a dangerous line in the president’s campaign against a free and independent press.
Treason is the only crime explicitly defined in the US Constitution. The Founding Fathers knew the word’s history as a weapon wielded by tyrants to justify the persecution and execution of enemies. They made its definition immutable—Article III reads: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort”—to ensure that it couldn’t be abused by politicians for self-serving attacks on rivals or critics. The crime is almost never prosecuted, but Mr. Trump has used the word dozens of times.
There is no more serious charge a commander in chief can make against an independent news organization. Which presents a troubling question: What would it look like for Mr. Trump to escalate his attacks on the press further? Having already reached for the most incendiary language available, what is left but putting his threats into action?
There’s evidence that’s already happening. The administration has waged an aggressive legal campaign against journalists. Leak investigations, which were already on the rise under President Obama, have surged. Government regulatory powers have been misused to retaliate against news organizations, such as the attempt to block AT&T from acquiring CNN’s parent company, Time Warner. Most recently, the precedent-shattering use of the Espionage Act against Julian Assange for publishing classified information has raised fears that the Justice Department seeks not merely to punish illegal hacking but effectively to criminalize standard reporting practices.
Meanwhile, the president’s rhetorical attacks continue to foster a climate in which trust in journalists is eroding and violence against them is growing. More than a quarter of Americans—and a plurality of Republicans—now agree that “the news media is the enemy of the American people” and “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” A world-wide surge of attacks has made this the most dangerous year for journalists on record. This is particularly true in parts of the world where pursuing the truth already carries great risks, as news reporters and editors experience rising levels of censorship, harassment, imprisonment and murder.
I met with the president in the Oval Office earlier this year and told him directly that authoritarian leaders around the world, with growing impunity, are employing his words to undermine free expression. The president expressed concern and insisted he wanted to be viewed as a defender of the free press. But in the same conversation, he took credit for the term “fake news,” a phrase that has now been wielded by dozens of leaders across five continents to justify everything from the passage of anti-free-speech laws in Egypt to the takeover of independent news organizations in Hungary to a crackdown on investigations into genocide in Myanmar.
America’s Founders believed that a free press was essential to democracy, and the American experience has proved them right. Journalism guards freedoms, binds together communities, ferrets out corruption and injustice, and ensures the flow of information that powers everything from elections to the economy. Freedom of the press has been fiercely defended by nearly all American presidents regardless of politics
or party affiliation, and regardless of their own complaints about coverage.
There are moments when the press and the government are legitimately at odds, never more so than when the press’s conviction about the public’s right to know collides with the government’s assessment of the importance of maintaining secrecy. Journalists take seriously the concern that their reporting may jeopardize national security, and at the Times we have withheld details or delayed publication when government officials convinced us there was a danger of loss of life or damage to intelligence operations.
The story that prompted the president’s attack was no exception. As the Times prepared the story for publication, our reporter contacted officials at the White House National Security Council, the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command and gave them the opportunity to raise any national-security concerns about the story. They told us they did not have any. Shortly after publication, the president accused the Times of treason.
Over 167 years, through 33 presidential administrations, the Times has sought to serve America and its citizens by seeking the truth and helping people understand the world. There is nothing we take more seriously than doing this work fairly and accurately, even when we are under attack. Mr. Trump’s campaign against journalists should concern every patriotic American. A free, fair and independent press is essential to our country’s strength and vitality and to every freedom that makes it great.
Mr. Sulzberger is publisher of the New York Times.