It was their first meeting since then-special counsel Robert Mueller
wrapped his investigation into alleged Russian interference
in the 2016 US presidential election, and Trump was quick to make light of the situation, wagging his finger at Putin while instructing him not to meddle in the 2020 race.
As journalists assembled for a photo op, setting up cameras, Trump quipped: "Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn't it? You don't have this problem in Russia, but we do."
"We also have, it's the same," Putin replied.
The United States has spent decades, billions of dollars and American lives trying to install democracy
around the world, but over the past four years, Trump has effectively handed autocrats a rhetorical sledgehammer with which to bash away at one of its most fundamental pillars: freedom of the press. His favorite catchphrase, "fake news," has emboldened authoritarian and democratic leaders alike to restrict the media in their own countries and target perceived critics with a growing sense of impunity.
Meanwhile, some of those same leaders have greenlit the deliberate spread of real disinformation -- US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia, for example, had used false news to interfere in the 2016 election.
But the specter of disinformation and foreign electoral interference
, which has loomed large over the 2020 presidential race
, is perhaps not as pernicious as the language now coming out of the White House itself. Less than two weeks out from the election, Trump has touted unfounded narratives and conspiracy theories casting doubt over mail-in voting
and the November results -- which could leave Americans even more vulnerable to further manipulation, experts warn.
"Unless we [Americans] mitigate our own political polarization, our own internal issues, we will continue to be an easy target for any malign actor -- Russian or Iranian, foreign or domestic," Nina Jankowicz writes in "How to Lose the Information War,"
her new book on Russia's influence campaigns and their effect on the democratic project.
For experts like Jankowicz, who have closely followed the President's war on facts and the undemocratic behavior they inspire, the potential coup de grace could be yet to come: After November, any suggestion that the US election results are phony would have a devastating effect -- and not just in America.
At a time when authoritarians are working to stamp out domestic dissent and roll back fundamental rights, undermining elections at the heart of the world's beacon of democracy sets a dangerous precedent -- one likely to be embraced by other leaders trying to maintain their grip on power.
Four years of the 'fake news' phenomenon
President Trump has said he came up with the term "fake news. "
But the phrase has been in general circulation since the end of the 19th century, according to Merriam-Webster.
Trump was, however, the first US President to deploy it against his opponents. And over the last four years, he has brought the phrase into the mainstream, popularizing it as a smear for unfavorable, but factual coverage.
According to a database
maintained by Stephanie Sugars of the US Press Freedom Tracker, Trump has used the phrase "fake news" nearly 900 times in tweets aimed to denigrate the media, insult particular news outlets, discredit supposed leaks and leakers, and allege falsehoods. As election day nears, he's redoubled his efforts bashing the fourth estate, research by Sugars has shown
This has given cover and conferred legitimacy to other politicians hoping to do the same. "Fake news" has been invoked by dozens of leaders, governments and state media around the world, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Polish President Andrzej Duda, fo