The Trump re-election campaign told TV stations they could lose their operating licenses for airing an ad criticizing the president’s actions in the coronavirus crisis — a challenge that may be more bluster than actual threat.
President Donald Trump’s campaign, in a letter on Wednesday, told stations in five battleground states to stop showing the ad from Priorities USA, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Failure to remove the ad “could put your station’s license in jeopardy” before the Federal Communications Commission, the campaign said in the letter. “Your station has an obligation to cease and desist from airing it immediately to comply with FCC licensing requirements.”
Trump has an antagonistic relation with much of the media, which he accuses of issuing what he calls “fake news.” But the president has been accused by some news outlets of making misleading statements and telling lies, including regarding the coronavirus.
Trump has threatened retaliation before, including musing about challenging NBC’s license in a 2017 tweet — even though licenses are generally held by stations, not networks.
Presidents appoint members to the FCC. The agency is led by Ajit Pai, a Republican designated as chairman by Trump. Another member of the FCC’s Republican majority awaits Senate confirmation for a third term at the agency.
The FCC doesn’t appear to have grounds to act against the stations for airing contentious ads, said Jack Goodman, a Washington broadcast attorney, said in an interview. The ad “is core political speech” protected by First Amendment guarantees of free speech, Goodman said.
“This is the sort of letter that stations get in political years, day in and day out,” Goodman said. “It’s intended to intimidate.”
A license revocation would not be likely under any scenario, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Eventually a license renewal could be challenged before the FCC, but “such a petition would get nowhere.”