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Story highlights

Free press needed "to preserve democracy as we know it," McCain said

Trump called the US press "the enemy of the American people"

(CNN) —  

Sen. John McCain slammed President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media this week by noting dictators “get started by suppressing free press.”

It was a startling observation from a sitting member of Congress against the President of the United States, especially considering McCain is a member of Trump’s party.

“I hate the press,” the Arizona Republican sarcastically told NBC News’ Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.” “I hate you especially. But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.”

But he continued, “If you want to preserve – I’m very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” McCain said in the interview. “And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

A clip of the interview, which airs in full on Sunday, was released Saturday afternoon.

McCain has been a frequent critic of the President, particularly in the areas of foreign policy and national security, since before Trump entered the White House.

The 2008 Republican presidential nominee said Americans must pay attention to history to understand the past connections between leaders of oppressive governments and efforts to stifle the media.

“They get started by suppressing free press, in other words, a consolidation of power – when you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press,” McCain said. “And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

Trump tweeted Friday that CNN and other major media outlets were “the enemy of the American people.”

CNN contributor Carl Bernstein, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, called Trump’s words “treacherous.”

“The most dangerous ‘enemy of the people’ is presidential lying – always,” he tweeted. “Attacks on press by @realDonaldTrump more treacherous than Nixon’s.”