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Trump cites ‘equal time’ rule while complaining about late night show criticism

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On Saturday morning, the sitting president of the United States, Donald Trump, tweeted that late night hosts were being too critical of him. He posed a question: “Should we get Equal Time?”

Four minutes later, as if posing this question was the beginning of an outpouring of public support for the enforcement of the equal time rule, Trump tweeted that “more and more people are suggesting” that Republicans in general (and Trump in particular) should get more time on television.

This is not how the equal time rule works. The rule requires that, if a radio or television station gives a certain opportunity (say, an interview, a commercial, hosting a show) to one candidate, it must also offer that opportunity to “other such candidates for that office.” The idea is to prevent media companies and broadcast stations from providing only one candidate’s viewpoint to the people in an effort to influence elections.

While Trump did declare his candidacy for re-election earlier than any of his predecessors — Inauguration Day of 2017 — the commentary currently upsetting the president is about his performance as president, not candidate.

And even if the re-election campaign were to technically start in the first year of Trump’s presidency, it would be other as-yet-undeclared candidates who would be the ones to ask for the enforcement of the equal time rule. Trump gets free media coverage from interviews and campaign speeches whenever he wants, as well as benefiting from the institutional media infrastructure of the presidency (as any incumbent does). Additionally, Trump’s campaign is already airing ads.

The equal time rule did come up during the 2016 presidential campaign, though Trump was the ceiling, not the floor, for coverage.

As the GOP frontrunner, Trump was offered the opportunity to host NBC’s Saturday Night Live in November 2015. He took it, and while he received mixed reviews about his dancing in one sketch and his hosting abilities in general, a presidential candidate received a highly-publicized, free opportunity for national attention — his main campaign media strategy at the time.

But Trump was running against 17 other candidates who were not afforded the same opportunity. Four of these candidates asked NBC for equal time and were afforded an approximation by the network: Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, and James Gilmore were given 12 minutes of commercial and promo time three weeks later during Saturday Night Live on 18 local affiliates in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

If anyone is in a position to ask for equal time, it’s Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), the only candidate to declare he is running for president other than Trump.

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