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Donald Trump’s tweet lands Indian American Ajit Pai in spotlight

Ajit Pai heads the Federal Communications Commission, an independent government body that regulates radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications in the US

world Updated: Oct 18, 2017 00:41 IST
Donald Trump,President Trump,Ajit Pai
President Donald Trump picked a fierce critic of the Obama-era “net neutrality” rules to be chief regulator of the US’ airwaves and internet connections.(AFP/Getty Images file photo)

That’s the most unenviable position in the Trump administration to be: behind an podium with an audience of one, filling up the space till as far as the eyes can see. Aides, and some very close to the President, have failed, faltered and fallen, or flourished. Indian American Ajit Pai finds himself in that spot, now.

Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, an independent government body that regulates radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications, and may have been put in that spot by President Donald Trump’s call for revoking the license of networks critical of him.

Especially NBC which reported that secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called the president a “moron”.

Trump said nothing publicly to Pai but wrote on Twitter: “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

The FCC issues and regulates licenses only to individual TV stations, as pointed out by Politico that reported first about Pai’s coming predicament, but he is coming under pressure to take a public position on a matter that has been legitimately seen and condemned as an attempt to muzzle the press.

“I ask you to commit in writing,” senator Sidney Blumenthal, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to Pai on Monday, “that you will not vote against any broadcast license renewal application in a manner that is inconsistent with the First Amendment (of the American constitution that protects freedom of speech).”

Pai and the four commissioners of the body could face pointed and persistent questioning on this issue when they face a congressional panel later this month, testifying under oath.

Pai, whose mother is from Bengaluru and father from Hyderabad, is a Republican and, was named a commissioner by President Barack Obama in 2012, and was elevated to the top job by President Trump. Pai has not spoken publicly about the position he may find himself in now.

It’s a spot Trump’s erstwhile press secretary Sean Spicer found himself in from day one on the job, forced to back the President on anything from the size of the crowd at his inauguration to bizarre claims about Obama ordering a wire-tap on Trump Tower. He was gone in six months.

Attorney general Jeff Sessions faced public lashing — through Twitter and media interviews — from the President almost daily at the peak of the controversy over Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. Trump once called him “our beleaguered AG”.

Tillerson has had his turn behind that podium as well, forced to disavow any differences with the president and asked by the President to stop advocating diplomacy as an option to deal with North Korea. Trump had earlier called Tillerson “our wonderful secretary of state”.

Pai’s future at FCC could depend on how he responds. He is known to be a firm believer in freedom of the press and opponent of any interference and meddling, but publicly proclaiming it could bring him in the president’s cross-hairs, for a Twitter-lash or, at worst, a curtailed tenure.

First Published: Oct 17, 2017 09:22 IST