WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump reportedly threatened a Time Magazine journalist with prison time during an interview at the Oval Office over a photo of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s letter to him.
Time released a transcript of the exchange on Thursday, which included the magazine’s team of four journalists’ 57-minute conversation with the president about his re-election campaign.
“Here’s a letter, OK, now I’m going to show you this letter. So this was written by Kim Jong Un. It was delivered to me yesterday. By hand,” Trump said.
Then, the president asked to go off-the-record, according to the transcript.
After the journalists and Trump went back on the record, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was recorded as saying, “You can’t take a picture of that, sorry.”
“OK,” a Time journalist replied, to which Trump said, “What was that?!”
The exchange seemed to indicate that the journalist already took a photo of the letter.
Later on in the interview, a Time journalist asked Trump about his dictating a letter to Corey Lewandowski “telling him to tell [former Attorney General Jeff] Sessions to limit the investigation [to future Russia meddling.]” “I could’ve told Sessions myself if I wanted to. Under Section II...” Trump said, after which Time said, “He testified under oath...”
“Excuse me,” Trump said, to which Time said, “...under threat of prison time, that that was the case Mr. President.”
This was when the president brought up the photo of Kim Jong Un’s letter.
“Excuse me — Under Section II — Well, you can go to prison instead, because, if you use, if you use the photograph you took of the letter that I gave you... confidentially, I didn’t give it to you to take photographs of it — So don’t play that game with me. Let me just tell you something. You take a look --" Trump said.
The Time journalist responded with, “I’m sorry, Mr. President. Were you threatening me with prison time?”
“Well, I told you the following. I told you you can look at this off-the-record. That doesn’t mean you take out your camera and start taking pictures of it. OK?” Trump said. “So I hope you don’t have a picture of it. I know you were very quick to pull it out — even you were surprised to see that. You can’t do that stuff. So go have fun with your story.”
On Friday, Trump continued his offense against the media via Twitter — this time questioning whether press actions, protected by the First Amendment, are legal.
“Just revealed that the Failing and Desperate New York Times was feeding false stories about me, & those associated with me, to the FBI. This shows the kind of unprecedented hatred I have been putting up with for years with this Crooked newspaper,” he tweeted. “Is what they have done legal?”
Trump’s barrage of attacks comes amid the U.S. ranking 48th in the world for press freedom, falling three places from last year, according to the 2019 Press Freedom Index from the Reporters Without Borders organization (who go by their French acronym RSF).
The U.S.‘s press freedom index last year also fell two places since 2017.
“More and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion,” the RSF wrote in a 2018 "Hatred of journalism threatens democracies" post. “The United States, the country of the First Amendment, has fallen again in the Index under Donald Trump, this time two places to 45th. A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters as “enemies of the people,” the term once used by Joseph Stalin.“
In this year’s index, the U.S.‘s press freedom falls behind Botswana (44th), Tonga (45th), Chile (46th) and Romania (47th), which enters America into the “Problematic Situation” category.
“As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as ‘problematic’ (orange),” the RSF said in a 2019 “cycle of fear” analyses post. “Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection.”
The 2019 press freedom index also shows that 66 countries are in the “Problematic Situation” category, with 52 in the “Difficult Situation” category, and 19 in the “Very Serious Situation” category. Only 15 countries are in the “Good Situation” category, while 28 are categorized under “Satisfactory Situation.”
“If the political debate slides surreptitiously or openly towards a civil war-style atmosphere, in which journalists are treated as scapegoats, then democracy is in great danger,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency for all people of good will who value the freedoms acquired in the course of history.”
This story was reported from Los Angeles.