Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Trump suggests libel laws should be changed after uproar over Woodward book

September 5, 2018 at 3:07 PM

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President Trump and Bob Woodward discuss Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” before its publication. (The Washington Post)

President Trump suggested Wednesday that Congress should change libel laws so he would be better positioned to seek “retribution” against Bob Woodward, the author of an explosive new book that portrays a presidency careening toward a “nervous breakdown.”

“Isn’t it a shame that someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?”

The tweet was part of an aggressive effort by the White House to discredit Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Fear,” which paints a harrowing portrait of the Trump presidency, based on in-depth interviews with administration officials and others.

Woodward, an associate editor at The Washington Post, has said he stands by his reporting.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office later Wednesday, Trump dismissed the book as “ a work of fiction.”

“He likes to get some publicity, sell some books,” Trump said of Woodward.

During an appearance on Fox News shortly after Trump’s tweet, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she has not “had the conversation” with Trump about any legal action he might pursue against Woodward. Trump has frequently threatened legal action against others he says have wronged him, without following through.

Related: [Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency]

In January, Trump called for a change in libel laws — which have been crafted at the state level — after the publication of “Fire & Fury,” a tell-all book about the White House by Michael Wolff. At the time, Trump said libel laws are “a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness.”

The bar for public officials, such as Trump, to win  libel suit is currently high. For a public official to win, the plaintiff must not only show that the defendant published a false and defamatory statement but that the defendant did so maliciously.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday he has no plans to address libel laws and was not aware of Trump’s tweet.

“No, is that something that’s been suggested?” Ryan said when asked at a news conference whether he sees a need to change libel laws. Ryan said he had been “busy working” Wednesday morning.

President Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Hours after The Post first reported several key incidents depicted in Woodward’s book Tuesday, the administration issued a string of public denials, with statements from top advisers — White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Sanders — as well as from Trump’s former personal attorney, John Dowd.

Mattis called the book “fiction,” and Sanders denounced it in a statement as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees,” without disputing any of the specifics that have been reported in excerpts.

Sanders appeared on several Wednesday morning television shows to reinforce that message.

“Everything I’ve seen so far out of this book doesn’t depict what’s going on in this building behind me,” Sanders, appearing from the White House lawn, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “You can’t have the type of success that this president has had if what that book says is true . . . What I see coming out of this building is pure and total success. He’s had the most successful two years of any president in modern history.”

Sanders also cited the military service of Mattis and Kelly and called them “two American heroes” who consider the book “pure fiction.”

“I would certainly rather take the word of those two individuals than a couple of disgruntled former employees who are anonymously attacking this president, trying to make him look bad,” she said.

A central theme of the book is the stealthy machinations used by those in Trump’s inner sanctum to try to control his impulses and prevent disasters, both for him personally and for the nation.

Woodward describes “an administrative coup d’etat” and a “nervous breakdown” of the executive branch, with senior aides conspiring to remove official papers from the president’s desk so he could not see or sign them.

Again and again, Woodward recounts at length how Trump’s national security team was shaken by his lack of curiosity and knowledge about world affairs and his contempt for the mainstream perspectives of military and intelligence leaders.

Trump tweeted the denial statements Tuesday evening and then, without providing evidence, suggested the book’s Sept. 11 release was timed to affect the midterm elections in November.

In later tweets Wednesday, Trump sought to push back on the book’s portrayal of his management style and on its reporting that his aides found him uninterested in many world affairs.

“I’m tough as hell on people & if I weren’t, nothing would get done,” Trump wrote. “Also, I question everybody & everything-which is why I got elected!

In other tweets, he called the book “total fiction” and “boring & untrue!”

Robert Costa, Josh Dawsey, Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.


John Wagner is a national reporter who leads The Post's new breaking political news team. He previously covered the Trump White House. During the 2016 presidential election, he focused on the Democratic campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. He also chronicled Maryland government for more than a decade.

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