As this blog has noted before, Donald Trump has reveled in threatening litigation against people who write negative stuff about him. He rails against negative media coverage at every turn, and he has no patience for reporters who aren’t “nice” to him.
Consistent with all that, Trump riffed a few weeks back about some vague intentions to “open up” libel laws. “One of the things I’m going to do, and this is going to make it tougher for me . . . but one of the things I’m going to do if I win . . . is 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,” said Trump at a late February rally in Fort Worth. Of course, media outlets that purposely write negative and horrible and false articles are already in trouble under a landmark Supreme Court ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan. That piece of jurisprudence gave the media special protections when reporting on public figures like Trump. In order for them to prevail in a libel proceeding, they would have to prove that the offending statement “was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
Given that the standard came down through a Supreme Court ruling, it’s something of a mystery how Trump would use White House levers to change the law of the land. An executive order, for instance, can’t overrule the Supreme Court.
In a meeting today with The Washington Post’s editorial board, Trump shed light on how little thought he gives to these matters before popping off about them. Asked by Washington Post Publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. about how he’d use executive power on libel laws, Trump first quipped, “I might not have to, based on Gawker. Right?”
Then he went on:
TRUMP: Okay, look, I’ve had stories written about me – by your newspaper and by others – that are so false, that are written with such hatred – I’m not a bad person. I’m just doing my thing – I’m, you know, running, I want to do something that’s good. It’s not an easy thing to do. I had a nice life until I did this, you know. This is a very difficult thing to do. In fact I’ve always heard that if you’re a very successful person you can’t run for office. And I can understand that. You’ll do a hundred deals, and you’ll do one bad one or two bad ones — that’s all they read about are the bad ones. They don’t read about the one hundred and fifty great ones that you had. And even some of the ones they write that are good, they make them sound bad. You know, so I’ve always heard that. I’ve heard that if you’re successful – very successful – you just can’t run for—
Ryan attempted to get Trump back to the point, though he didn’t have much luck, as the transcript makes clear:
TRUMP: What I would do, what I would do is I’d – well right now the libel laws, I mean I must tell you that the Hulk Hogan thing was a tremendous shock to me because – not only the amount and the fact that he had the victory — because for the most part I think libel laws almost don’t exist in this country, you know, based on, based on everything I’ve seen and watched and everything else, and I just think that if a paper writes something wrong — media, when I say paper I’m talking about media. I think that they can do a retraction if they’re wrong. They should at least try to get it right. And if they don’t do a retraction, they should, they should you know have a form of a trial. I don’t want to impede free press, by the way. The last thing I would want to do is that. But I mean I can only speak for – I probably get more – do I, I mean, you would know, do I get more publicity than any human being on the earth? Okay? I mean, [Editor’s note: Trump points at Ruth Marcus] she kills me, this one – that’s okay, nice woman.
Just a point here: Hulk Hogan v. Gawker is a privacy suit, not a libel case. Hogan last week won a jury award of $115 million over a sex tape posted by Gawker in 2012.
The discussion zigged and zagged from there, returning again to what Trump would do about the libel laws. Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt asked point-blank, “Given the Supreme Court rulings on libel — Sullivan v. New York Times — how would you change the law?”
Trump: “I would just loosen them up.”
When Ruth Marcus asked just what that means, Trump does what he always does. He drifts:
I’d have to get my lawyers in to tell you, but I would loosen them up. I would loosen them up. If The Washington Post writes badly about me – and they do, they don’t write good – I mean, I don’t think I get – I read some of the stories coming up here, and I said to my staff, I said, “Why are we even wasting our time? The hatred is so enormous.” I don’t know why. I mean, I do a good job. I have thousands of employees. I work hard.
I’m not looking for bad for our country. I’m a very rational person, I’m a very sane person. I’m not looking for bad. But I read articles by you, and others. And, you know, we’ve never – we don’t know each other, and the level of hatred is so incredible, I actually said, “Why am I – why am I doing this? Why am I even here?” And I don’t expect anything to happen–
The end point came when Trump finally admitted, in so many words, that all he wanted was to live as a public figure and sue people like a private figure: “I want to make it more fair from the side where I am, because things are said that are libelous, things are said about me that are so egregious and so wrong, and right now according to the libel laws I can do almost nothing about it because I’m a well-known person you know, etc., etc.”
Again, he merely wants to undermine a pillar of American democracy for his own personal convenience. That’s all.