By Alexander Bolton - 02-19-17 17:15 PM EST
President Trump's escalating war with media dominated the Sunday talk shows, eclipsing other issues facing the White House and Congress.
Republicans spent much of Sunday arguing over Trump's provocative tweet from Friday slamming the media as "the enemy of the American people." The tweet followed a lengthy press conference, Trump's first as president, during which he sparred with reporters and blasted "fake news."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking to NBC from a security conference in Munich, Germany, warned that Trump is toying with the rhetoric of despots.
"That's how dictators get started," McCain told NBC's "Meet the Press." "They get started by suppressing free press, in other words, a consolidation of power."
On ABC's "This Week," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Trump's characterization of the press something "that you hear tin-pot dictators say when they want to control all of the information."
McCain's comments drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who accused McCain of having an axe to grind with Trump because of their differing views on foreign policy.
"Everything that he says about the president is colored by his own personal dispute he's got running with President Trump, and it should be taken with a grain of salt, because John McCain's the guy who's advocated for war everywhere," Paul said on ABC's "This Week."
Paul, who has questioned U.S. foreign policy he views as overly reliant on military deployments, has praised Trump's skepticism of armed intervention and warned that McCain's approach "would bankrupt the nation."
"We're very lucky John McCain's not in charge, because I think we'd be in perpetual war," Paul added, taking a shot that McCain's not likely to ignore.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran against Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, pushed back against Trump's media criticism, arguing on CNN's "State of the Union" that the media is "such an important part of democracy." While he conceded he doesn't always agree with the press, he said their role is "vital" as a way to "hold people accountable."
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus defended the president, arguing that he was not declaring all journalists enemies of the people, but was focusing on media outlets that have written what the White House disputes as inaccurate. In Trump's tweet, he specifically mentioned the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CNN and CBS.
Priebus criticized a story in The New York Times from last week reporting that Trump campaign officials had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence agents, and a Wall Street journal article reporting that the intelligence community was withholding information from the president.
"I've talked to the top levels of the intelligence community. And they've assured me that that New York Times story was grossly overstated, and inaccurate and totally wrong," Priebus said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
And Priebus said the "main departments of the intelligence community" had denied that Trump had been cut out of the loop on sensitive intelligence matters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), McCain's closest friend in the Senate, sought middle ground on CBS's "Face the Nation," arguing that "the backbone of democracy is a free press and independent judiciary."
He said McCain was right to say that politicians should understand and defend the press, yet he urged news outlets to treat Trump more fairly.
"When it comes to Trump, you're over the top. You're acting more like an opposition party," he said, echoing words of Trump and top adviser Steve Bannon.
A Fox News poll conducted earlier this month showed that 68 percent of registered voters think the media has been tougher on Trump compared to President Obama. A Gallup poll from earlier in the month showed a plurality of respondents thought he media was too tough on Trump.
The buzz over Trump's running battle with journalists eclipsed discussion of divisions within the GOP that threaten the president's agenda, namely his ambitious plans to overhaul the tax code and repeal and replace ObamaCare.
Graham argued that GOP infighting within Congress is potentially more consequential than reports of disarray within the Trump administration.
He said the House Republican tax plan that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to sell to Senate Republicans at a private meeting last week is in deep trouble.
"The Congress is stumbling. Republicans in the Congress - we're all tied up in knots," Graham said Sunday. "The House is talking about a tax plan that won't get 10 votes in the Senate."
The House GOP plan includes a proposal to place an across-the-board 20-percent tax on imports, which has encountered stiff opposition in the Senate.
The Republican divide over the so-called border adjustment tax is more than a minor wrinkle. The provision is expected to raise $1.2 trillion in revenue, a major piece of the plan to pay for the main goals of reform, cutting the individual and corporate tax rates.
If the Republican plan is not deficit neutral - if it does not save money over the next decade, or if it adds to the deficit in the 10 years after that - then it cannot be passed with a simple majority vote through the Senate under the budget reconciliation process.
Republicans are divided over ObamaCare as well. The thorniest issue for them to resolve is what to do about the Medicaid expansion that 31 states have adopted.
Another problem facing the Trump administration that was largely overlooked Sunday is the slow pace of staffing up, an issue due in large part to Democratic roadblocks to Trump's nominees.
"You know what, my fear of the administration as it's shaken out so far is not that it's incipient fascism, it's that it's anarchy," New York Times columnist David Brooks said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
He noted that the vast majority of the sub-Cabinet positions that require Senate confirmation have yet to be processed.
"There are 696 appointed jobs that need, require Senate confirmation, and the Trump administration hasn't come up, named, 692 of them," he said.