In Commerce Committee hearing, Udall asks for assurances that Trump’s business interests and hostility to media will not influence FCC decision-making.
Today, during a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, U.S. Senator Tom Udall questioned Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai about how he intends to lead the FCC given President Trump’s attacks on the free press, including specific media organizations that are subject to FCC regulation.
“President Trump is using bully tactics to try to intimidate the media. He has even declared certain media outlets ‘the enemy of the American people.’ His press secretary, Sean Spicer, took the unusual step of barring some journalists from attending his daily press briefing.” Udall said during the hearing. “Chairman Pai, many news organizations or their parent companies have business dealings with the FCC, from regulatory matters to potential merger reviews…Do you agree with President Trump that the media is ‘the enemy of the American people?’ … Will the FCC operate independently of the White House?… Will you resist any attempt by the White House to use the FCC to intimidate news organizations?”
Saying that he did not “want to wade into the larger political debates,” Pai declined to answer whether he agrees with Trump’s tweet calling the media the enemy. And Pai went on to decline to disclose whether he discussed any specific media organizations with President Trump during two recent meetings. “I can’t comment on the conversations I’ve had with the president,” Pai said.
One such meeting was at Trump Tower. The second was yesterday at the White House, shortly before Trump announced that he will re-nominate Pai to another five-year term. As chairman, Pai directs the FCC staff, including the Media Bureau, which oversees broadcast radio and television, and cable and satellite services.
Udall said after the hearing: “The president’s attacks on the free press aren’t a ‘political’ issue, they are directly relevant to Pai’s position on the FCC. The president has singled out for attack particular media organizations, which regularly have issues pending before the Commission. The American people need to have confidence that the president’s grudges against certain media outlets – as well as his business interests – will not influence the FCC’s decisions about who has the right to broadcast. This is a basic First Amendment issue, and no FCC commissioner should feel the need to hesitate to answer or demur.”
Udall also pointed out that Pai has repeatedly called himself a defender of First Amendment rights, including during a speech at the Media Institute’s 2016 Awards Banquet, yet Pai would not speak out against Trump’s anti-media bullying. “Last October, Pai stated that ‘anyone who has the privilege of serving at the FCC — any preacher with a pulpit, if you will — has the duty to speak out whenever Americans’ First Amendment rights are at stake.’ I am disappointed that Pai seems to have forgotten this duty since being elevated to FCC Chairman by President Trump.”
During the hearing, Udall also questioned Pai about whether he will address Trump’s tactics and potential conflicts of interest before the FCC. He asked about a Wall Street Journal report that White House adviser Jared Kushner raised concerns with a Time Warner executive about CNN’s coverage of President Trump. As the article notes, Time Warner owns CNN and has a merger pending potential antitrust review. Udall pressed Pai to answer whether he “had any discussions with or contacts with anyone in the Trump administration about CNN or any other news organization.” Pai said he had not had any discussions about “that transaction” with members of the Trump administration.
Udall went on to ask Pai if he would commit to reporting to the Commerce Committee “if anyone from the White House contacts you or your staff about taking any favorable or negative action regarding any media or communications business.” Pai did not directly respond to Udall’s request, but said he would “commit to following all the appropriate protocols and ethical requirements that apply to that sort of conversation.”
Finally, Udall submitted questions for the record to Pai about how he would approach FCC decisions that might conflict with Trump’s business interests. Udall’s questions note that “the FCC has issued more than 50 licenses for antennas located on Trump Organization properties across the country, from the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.” He asks Pai to provide a complete list of all current and pending FCC licensing, regulatory, and other matters dealing with Trump Organization properties and Trump-connected businesses. Udall further asks for Pai’s commitment that any FCC licensing, regulatory, or other matter concerning Trump Organization properties and Trump-connected businesses will not be influenced by the White House.