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Why Trump can’t revoke NBC’s broadcast licenses

President Trump and his wife Melania at an NBC event in 2012. Photo: Evan Agostini / AP

President Trump asked Wednesday morning when it would be "appropriate to challenge [NBC's] License." But NBC's main network doesn't have a government license, and Trump doesn't have the power to directly take away the licenses that do exist — for the local stations that run its content.

Why it matters: Trump has regularly attacked the press, and his threat here is serious: to try and take a broadcast network off the air because he doesn't like its recent stories. It's a tactic that echoes Richard Nixon, who targeted licenses held by the Washington Post. But it's legally more complicated than the president's tweet makes it seem.

The facts:

  • NBC the network doesn't have a "license." Individual stations do. Some of those are owned directly by NBC's parent company, Comcast, but even if the FCC revoked those licenses it wouldn't stop the network from producing content.
  • "There's no way the FCC can say, 'Saturday Night Live needs to go off the air,'" said Harold Feld, senior vice president at advocacy group Public Knowledge.
  • The FCC is an independent agency. Its chairman, Ajit Pai, is designated by the president. But he's not beholden to the White House's demands like executive agencies.
  • The president does have the ability to pressure the FCC chair. Trump's comments Wednesday are an example. It's still highly unlikely that anything would happen to the licenses, Feld said. "Trump can't order the FCC to do it, the FCC wouldn't want to do it, and even if they did poke around they couldn't really do anything other than poke around and demand documents based on what the precedents are," he said.
  • The FCC does have leverage over NBC owner Comcast, Feld noted. But any move to pursue the company would be out of step with Pai's industry-friendly agenda thus far.
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