Reince Priebus, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, said over the weekend that the administration has explored changing the libel laws — a throwback to one of his boss’ campaign statements.
“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story,” Priebus said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “But when you have articles out there that have no basis or fact and we’re sitting here on 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters—”
At that point, ABC host Jonathan Karl interrupted, asking Priebus if he thinks Trump should be able to sue The New York Times — an outlet for which the president has shown particular disdain — “for stories he doesn’t like.”
“I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news,” Priebus told Karl, adding that he has seen numerous reports with “no basis or fact.”
— ABC News (@ABC) April 30, 2017
Trump has repeatedly slammed the national news media. On the campaign trail, he often said he would “open up” the libel laws if he became president — a line that served as red meat rhetoric for his raucous supporters.
In February 2016, then-candidate Trump said newspapers were “dishonest” and “losing money.” He told the crowd at a rally that the press corps would “have problems” with him in the White House:
I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.
Most recently, Trump tweeted in March, asking his Twitter followers if he should pursue changing the libel laws because the “failing” Times “has disgraced the media world” with an unflattering story about his track record with honesty.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Any change to libel regulations would be extremely difficult. Under current law, most of which is maintained at the state — not federal — level, public individuals can win a lawsuit against a media outlet only if they can prove the organization published information on them with actual malice, knowing the report to be utterly untrue or showing reckless disregard for fact. The Supreme Court set this precedent in its 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision.
Times editor Dean Baquet, the one who last year admitted his paper doesn’t understand religion, weighed in on the issue Sunday, telling CNN’s Brian Stelter that Trump’s comments about the mainstream media are “dangerous.” He complained the president is “making the media sort of the punching bag.”
“We’re supposed to be tough, we’re supposed to ask him hard questions. I’m not sure he gets that,” Baquet said. “The more he beats us up, to be frank, I think that’s bad for the country. I think it’s bad for the free flow of information and criticism.”