Reviving a controversial theme that President Trump brought up on the campaign trail, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday that the administration has “looked at” potential changes to libel laws that would make it easier for Trump to sue news organizations that criticize him.
“I think it's something that we've looked at,” Priebus told Jonathan Karl on ABC's “This Week.”
“How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story,” he added.
Priebus criticized “articles out there that have no basis or fact” and alluded to reports on cable news stations about contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
Priebus said the media needs “to be more responsible with how they report the news.”
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) April 30, 2017
Priebus's statements were aired just hours after the White House correspondents' dinner, an event Trump boycotted.
Trump is a public official — the most public of officials in the world. To sue, he would have to meet a high bar to prove that journalists, their news organizations or anyone else had met the judicial standard of actual malice when criticizing him.
But he has been talking about changing the law for months.
On the campaign trail, at a rally in Texas, Trump initially said he wants to “open up” federal libel laws, making it easier to sue journalists and outlets that criticize him — such as the New York Times and The Washington Post. In June, he banned Post reporters from campaign events.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
As The Post's Callum Borchers wrote after that rally, changing libel laws is a long shot, and something the president can't unilaterally do:
It's hard to imagine any serious debate about an attempt to alter libel laws, however; such an effort would clearly exceed Trump's — or any president's — authority.
Alternatively, Trump could simply use the bully pulpit to promote a culture of frivolous libel suits that ultimately wouldn't go anywhere but would force media companies to spend precious resources on defending themselves. If his goal is to cause news outlets to lose money, Trump could conceivably achieve that objective without changing any laws at all.
… Through judicial appointments, Trump could theoretically reverse decades of legal precedent that requires a public figure like him to prove “actual malice” in a libel case.
Trump has threatened legal action against news organizations before. As a candidate, he warned that he would sue the New York Times after the newspaper printed stories about unwanted sexual advances Trump was accused of making toward several women.
In a response, the newspaper's attorney wrote: “We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
NYT responds to Trump re: cease and desist pic.twitter.com/3AozcWSIl6
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) October 13, 2016