Washington - Donald Trump unveiled the winners of his much-touted "Fake News Awards" late Wednesday, hours after a maverick senator from the president's own Republican party accused him of employing Stalinist language to "slur" and undermine the free press.
Arizona lawmaker Jeff Flake levelled the broadside in an address from the Senate floor earlier in the day, delivering a one-two punch after veteran Republican John McCain penned an op-ed assailing Trump's spoof awards.
The brash Republican president announced his top-ten list -- which included his regular targets CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post -- using his preferred medium of Twitter, linking to a list published on the Republican Party's website that crashed minutes after his big reveal.
Flake slammed what he called the president's dangerous disregard for the truth, and his designation of the mainstream news media as an "enemy of the people."
"Mr President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies," said the senator, an outspoken Trump critic who is not seeking re-election this year.
"When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that does not suit him 'fake news,' it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press."
Turning the tables on the president, Flake accused him of leading an "unrelenting daily assault" on the free press, even as his White House coined the term "alternative facts" -- "as justification for what used to be called old fashioned falsehoods."
"2017 was a year which saw the truth -- objective, empirical, evidence-based truth -- more battered and abused than any time in the history of our country, at the hands of the biggest figure in our government," Flake charged.
Of the "awards" Flake had said "it beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle yet here we are," -- and urged his fellow lawmakers to take a stand in support of the press.
- 'Dishonest media' -
At loggerheads with much of the US news media since his election, Trump finally doled out his "Fake News Awards" after weeks of speculation, recognising what he had called "the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media."
Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who writes a regular opinion column -- not news articles -- for The New York Times, nabbed the number one spot.
The administration said he merited the award for writing "on the day of President Trump's historic, landslide victory that the economy would never recover."
Following the former reality star's stunning rise to power, Krugman had written that Trump's inexperience on economic policy and unpredictability risked further damaging the weak global economy.
The list also pointed to an error from ABC's veteran reporter Brian Ross, who was suspended for four weeks without pay after he was forced to correct a bombshell report on ex-Trump aide Michael Flynn.
In follow-up tweets to his "Fake News" announcement, the commander-in-chief posted that "despite some very corrupt and dishonest media coverage, there are many great reporters I respect and lots of GOOD NEWS for the American people to be proud of!"
"Together there is nothing we can't overcome -- even a very biased media. We ARE Making America Great Again!"
- 'Reflexive slurs' -
Quoting figures from the International Federation of Journalists which reported the deaths of more than 80 journalists last year, Flake said Trump's "reflexive slurs" were an affront to their sacrifice.
From his longtime questioning of Barack Obama's birth certificate, to his dismissal of what US intelligence agrees was a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election as a "hoax," Flake accused Trump of weakening trust in American institutions -- while emboldening despots around the world.
Citing the examples of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte or Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, who all employed the term "fake news" in recent months, he accused Trump of encouraging brutal and authoritarian regimes to persecute the press.
"This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr President," Flake said. "Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has now in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language."
Earlier in the day White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders had pushed back at Flake's criticism, suggesting the senator was simply "looking for some attention" -- and accusing him of defending the "oppressive Cuban government" during a recent trip to the communist-ruled island.
While Flake's combative stance was not echoed by the Republican mainstream, it was mirrored by his Arizona colleague and fellow Trump critic McCain, in an opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled "Mr. President, stop attacking the press."
"Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy," McCain warned.
Citing the Committee to Protect Journalists, McCain noted that 2017 was one of the most dangerous years on record for the profession, with 262 journalists jailed over their work -- 21 of them on charges of "fake news."