Why Ajit Pai Isn’t Condemning President Trump

As Democrats escalate a weeks-long campaign to push the FCC chairman into confronting Trump on free speech, Republicans see a plot to derail an ambitious agenda.

A threat to NBC’s broadcast license by President Trump has put the Federal Communications Commission in the spotlight.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Oct. 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

It only took one tweet for President Trump to give the head of his Federal Communications Commission a nasty—and particularly tenacious—headache.

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” the president tweeted on Oct. 11. Trump’s brief missive sparked an immediate outcry from Democrats in Congress, who pressed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to condemn the president’s request in the strongest possible terms. Pai took six days to respond, finally telling a think-tank audience that he believed in the First Amendment and that the FCC could not lawfully revoke network licenses over content.

But the chairman wouldn’t condemn Trump by name, prompting calls from Democrats in both congressional chambers to hold hearings specifically to address Pai’s relationship with the White House. At a prescheduled FCC oversight hearing in the House on Wednesday—two weeks after the initial tweet—Democratic lawmakers tore into Pai for his continued recalcitrance while Republicans worked to run interference for the beleaguered chairman.

Democrats say that Pai, as head of the FCC, is required to confront those in power who seek to undermine the First Amendment and the freedom of the press. “It’s pretty clear that President Trump is bullying and intimidating broadcast stations and the press,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said on Thursday. “And the chairman of the FCC has an obligation to stand up and stop it.”

Republicans believe that mind-set deliberately misunderstands the FCC chairman’s role in American politics. They say Democrats are exploiting Pai’s uncomfortable position in an attempt to fluster the chairman ahead of big-ticket debates on net neutrality and media-ownership rules, which are both expected to be put to a vote before the end of the year.

“The latest Twitter scandal is an attempt to distract the commission and the American people from the FCC’s real work, which is delivering on a mission to unleash American innovation,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, at the start of Wednesday’s hearing.

“They are trying to rattle him,” said Roslyn Layton, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former member of the Trump transition team that helped choose Pai for chairman. “It’s unfortunate because the job of Congress is to oversee the FCC, not to get its commissioners off kilter.”

Pai has long voiced full-throated support for freedom of the press. As recently as last month, the chairman expressed concern over frequent calls that his agency revoke broadcast licenses due to newscast content, labelling them “fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions.”

But the chairman now strikes a slightly different tone when asked about Trump’s complaint against NBC and other networks. “Congressman, I am going to speak to my own views in my own words, and my views are that I stand with the First Amendment,” the chairman said Wednesday in response to pointed questions from Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone.

“I’m not going to characterize the views of anyone else,” Pai added, repeating a line he’s used often since he first addressed Trump’s tweet last week.

The FCC is an independent agency and its members are confirmed to five-year terms, making it impossible for Trump to outright fire Pai. But Trump can demote Pai as chairman and elevate another commissioner to the role—and Trump has delivered embarrassingly public beatdowns to underlings who’ve dared question his words or actions.

Pai made his first offensive foray against his critics during a press conference following the FCC’s open meeting on Tuesday. “I understand that those who oppose my agenda would like me to be distracted by the controversy of the day,” he said. “But I’m going to be focused on the work of the commission and everything that we do. And that includes a respect for the First Amendment.” Pai was even more pointed during Wednesday’s House hearing, calling out lawmakers for alleged hypocrisy over their 2004 push to investigate Sinclair Broadcast Group for running a documentary critical of then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s war record.

Many Democrats deny a political angle to the continued pressure, presenting themselves as unbiased defenders of the freedom of the press. “So we’re going after the chairman of the FCC for failing to defend the First Amendment and do his job because of net neutrality? That makes no sense,” Blumenthal said Thursday.

Others, however, have explicitly tied Pai’s deregulatory agenda to his hesitancy to push back forcefully against Trump threats to free speech. “Chairman Pai has claimed he has restored independence to the FCC, yet he refuses repeatedly to put any distance between himself and President Trump—whether it’s net neutrality, Sinclair, or even protecting a free press,” Pallone said Wednesday. “And that evasiveness does not inspire confidence.”

Pai’s defenders say the sustained pressure from Democrats is unfair and misplaced. “It’s a mix of genuine concern, crocodile tears, confusion about the law, and largely willful ignorance of how the FCC actually works,” said Berin Szoka, president of libertarian group TechFreedom. Szoka argued that any revocation of network licenses would face an almost impossibly high legal bar.

“Congress did not delegate the policing of the First Amendment to the FCC,” said Layton, who believes Trump probably didn’t intend to drag Pai or his agency into the mix. “I don’t even think this message was meant for the FCC,” she said. “I thought it was a general thing, where he was just sort of inciting people in general. I didn’t interpret it as FCC at all.”

It’s certainly an FCC issue now. And if the sustained criticism from Democrats is any indication, Pai’s headache is likely to linger for some time.

“I don’t think it should be as hard as it has been for him to not just reiterate the Constitution and statute, but to make clear that he won’t allow any interference,” Sen. Brian Schatz said Thursday. “I am waiting for a full-throated defense of the independence of the agency, and I have not yet heard that.”

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