WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Jeff Flake on Wednesday castigated President Donald Trump for his attacks on the media, comparing his fellow Republican to former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and charging that Trump inspires modern-day authoritarians.
In a rare intra-party rebuke from the Senate floor, Flake said Trump’s portrayal of the press as “the enemy of the people” and repeated White House references to “fake news” and “alternative facts” spur copycats such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until he died in 1953, used the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe those he wanted annihilated. Trump’s embrace of the phrase “should be a source of great shame,” Flake said.
Flake, 55, an Arizona conservative who has frequently feuded with Trump, in October described himself as out of step with his party and said would not seek re-election. His term ends in January 2019.
“Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians ... This is reprehensible,” Flake said on the Senate floor.
Trump in February 2017 tweeted that “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!” Attacks on the media in response to critical stories have remained a staple of his Twitter feed.
That same month, Assad was quoted as dismissing charges of human rights violations at a military prison as “fake news.” In the Philippines, Duterte on Tuesday lashed out at a “fake news outlet” known for challenging his government.
Noting Trump has said he will give out awards for “the most corrupt and dishonest” media, Flake said “it beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle.” Trump had said he would announce the mock awards on Wednesday but on Tuesday press secretary Sarah Sanders said it was a “potential event.”
In his clashes with Trump, Flake has called his behavior sometimes “reckless, outrageous and undignified” and criticized the president in a book that made the New York Times best-seller list last year.
On Twitter Trump has referred to the senator as “Flake(y)” and said Flake dropped his re-election bid because he was doomed to lose. He also has called Flake ineffective, “toxic” and weak on issues such as crime and border security.
Still Flake has voted for Trump’s policies. He supported Republican tax cut legislation last month and voted for unsuccessful bills to repeal and replace Obamacare, both efforts backed by Trump.
Flake laid some “official untruths” at Trump’s door and said the most vexing was his labeling as a “hoax” the investigation of alleged ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign. “To call the Russia matter a ‘hoax’ ... is a falsehood,” Flake said.
“We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat,” he said. “It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter.” (Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Trott)