President Trump suggested Wednesday that NBC and other broadcasters might have their licenses challenged following a report he proposed a tenfold increase in nuclear weapons, prompting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call him a "moron."
But scholars say Trump's claims of "fake news" are unlikely to result in any license revocations by the five-member Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency appointed but not controlled by the president.
"No one but a moron (Trump?) would bet on it with real money," said Glen Robinson, a former FCC commissioner who teaches at the University of Virginia School of Law.
FCC broadcast licenses are held by individual TV affiliates, but cable channels such as MSNBC and online news sites such as NBCnews.com, which published the story, don't need a similar license — limiting even the theoretical effect.
"Anyone can file with the FCC a challenge to the renewal of a broadcast license," Robinson said.
But, he added, "the denial of a license renewal on the strength of a claim like Trump's is so wildly improbable that I am sure no one at NBC — or Comcast, its owner — is losing any sleep over such a possibility."
Until 1987, the FCC's "Fairness Doctrine" technically required broadcasters to present balanced news coverage, but Robinson said even under that doctrine, "the FCC set a high standard of proof to support fairness challenges that would not be satisfied by chants of 'fake news.'"
Duke Law School professor Stuart Benjamin, appointed in 2009 as the FCC's first distinguished scholar in residence, said "there is precedent" for politically motivated licensing decisions. But he said that precedent is "from the 1920s and it's universally regarded as being a mistake."
The historical examples of blocked licenses were handed down by the FCC's radio-regulating forerunner and are treated today as "anti-precedents," Benjamin said.
"The naked political stuff is treated as anti-precedent," he said. "Challenges are almost never successful, and it really had better be that you are deeply failing to respond to the needs of your community — you aren't broadcasting many hours a day, or you're playing classical music 24-7."
Others were less definitive in their pronouncements.
Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman from 2013 until January under President Obama, wrote in an email that, "I have no idea how Trump FCC would decide."
"This is treading on the First Amendment," Wheeler said about Trump's remarks. "A broadcast license is a public trust, not a political toy."
One of the FCC's five current commissioners, Democrat Mignon Clyburn, said in an afternoon tweet: "Revoking a #broadcast license on such grounds will only happen if we fail to abide by the First Amendment."
Trump didn't appear to soften his stance when questioned. Hours after his morning tweet, he told reporters in the Oval Office, where he was welcoming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that "it's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it."
One recent historical example of yanking a broadcast license comes from Venezuela, where the largest private broadcaster, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), had its license renewal refused by Hugo Chavez's government in 2007 after it allegedly backed a 2002 coup against the government.
Charles Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela at the time of the coup, said people "should always be vigilant whenever the executive threatens the independence of the media in any country."
"Any time the president or prime minister of democratic nation threatens freedom of the press, it is a matter of great concern," said Shapiro, now president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
But Shapiro said that "Hugo Chavez was so far beyond Trump's tweet" that "there's really no comparison except at the most superficial level."
Shapiro's long list of differences include "requiring broadcast media to broadcast hours of mandatory programming at Chavez's whim using the regulations meant for national disasters, having colectivos of chavista thugs attack individual reporters in the field, hold demos in front of TV stations, cancel licenses, then prohibit those stations from using cable TV to broadcast, buying critical newspapers and TV stations, and threatening the other holdings of the media owners if they didn't back down."
Still, others viewed Trump's comments within a worrying historical context of authoritarianism.
New School international affairs professor Nina Khrushcheva, a granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, said: "Here, President Trump defined 'fake news' the way Joseph Stalin defined 'enemies of the people': if they offer a slightest objection to his rule they must be wrong. And they must be silenced."