On Thursday, Principal Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, with a straight face, that “the president in no way, form, or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence.” On Sunday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted a video of him physically assaulting “CNN.”
The clip, which shows Trump at a pro-wrestling show years ago, depicts him triumphantly tackling and punching a man with the CNN logo superimposed on the victim’s head. CNN’s Brian Stelter subsequently pointed out that the video seemed to have been drawn directly from a Reddit thread.
To some observers and those working at political news outlets, the tweet was an inappropriate, and potentially dangerous, escalation of Trump’s long-running feud with CNN. To those in Trump’s political inner circle and many of his supporters, it was the mark of a tough guy—and funny as hell. Of the three senior Trump administration officials contacted on Sunday by The Daily Beast, all said that the tweet was both justified and amusing. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
“I thought it was funny,” one White House official said. “Glad [Dan] Scavino and the president did that.”
Scavino is Trump’s White House director of social media, and his taunts and attacks on Twitter have sometimes directly foreshadowed some of @realDonaldTrump’s own tweeted salvos.
“The president fights back,” another senior Trump aide added. “It’s rich that some of you people [in the media] can never take a joke.”
“Pure Trump,” another official tersely messaged.
When asked if they were concerned that these kinds of messages Trump sends could encourage actual physical violence against journalists, all officials ignored the follow-up questions.
Sanders and press secretary Sean Spicer did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on Sunday.
Sunday’s tweet is the latest episode in the ongoing, increasingly bitter and petty public feud between President Trump and multiple news outlets, including MSNBC, CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. The president has especially gone after CNN—which the White House and Trump have repeatedly called out for having to retract one recent Russia-related story—and MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
Trump’s closest aides and advisors often view his feuds with various media outlets as battles worth fighting because they excite many of the president’s fans, bash an unpopular news media, and draws media attention away from other negative stories.
"At least you're writing [about] this [Mika thing] and not that we're going to kill millions of people," one White House official sardonically told The Daily Beast last week, referencing the terrible press the Trump administration and Republicans have received lately over Trumpcare.
The president and his allies relish his war with CNN so much that late last week, The Washington Post reported that some White House advisers said they had grown “frustrated” that the feud between the president and the MSNBC hosts “overtook the president’s fight with CNN, which seemed in their eyes to have clearer villains and heroes.”
Thomas Bossert, the president’s homeland security adviser, shrugged off the tweet as just another example of Trump being an authentic anti-politician and using his Twitter account to go around the filter of the mainstream media.
“There’s a lot of cable news shows that reach directly into hundreds of thousands of viewers, and they’re really not always fair to the president,” Bossert said on ABC’s This Week. “So I’m pretty proud of the president for developing a Twitter and a social media platform where he can talk directly to the American people.”
Bossert also shrugged off concerns that the video could be viewed as a threat or promotion of violence.
“I think that no one would perceive that as a threat—I hope they don’t,” Bossert said. “But I do think that he’s beaten up in a way on cable platforms that he has a right to respond to.”
After initially responding to the video on Twitter by quoting Sanders, CNN issued a more extensive statement.
“It is a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters,” the network said. “Clearly, Sarah Huckabee Sanders lied when she said the President had never done so.”
The network added that Trump is engaged in “juvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office,” and said he “should start doing his [job].”
CNN anchor Brian Stelter, the network’s senior media correspondent, implored other journalists and Republican leaders to speak out against Trump’s anti-media rhetoric and his efforts to “demeaning voices that criticize him.”
“Who’s going to speak up? Are other media outlets going to speak up? What about GOP leaders? … Where’s Paul Ryan? Where is Mitch McConnell?” Stelter asked at the top of his show, Reliable Sources, on Sunday morning. “He’s trying to build up news outlets that promote him, while trying to tear down outlets that challenge him.”
Stelter then asked if Trump is trying to “impersonate” authoritarian leaders like the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“This president continues to demean the media. Are GOP leaders going to support him?” Stelter added.