Last weekend, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus doubled down on Donald Trump’s regular threat on the campaign trail to “open up” libel laws. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” the president’s right-hand man suggested to host Jonathan Karl that the policy change could still be on the administration’s agenda:
KARL: I want to ask you about two things the President has said on related issues. First of all, there was what he said about opening up the libel laws. Tweeting “the failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” That would require, as I understand it, a constitutional amendment. Is he really going to pursue that? Is that something he wants to pursue?
PRIEBUS: I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story. 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—
KARL: So you think the President should be able to sue the New York Times for stories he doesn’t like?
PRIEBUS: Here’s what I think. I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired.
Perhaps Reince’s waffling answer was simply his way to downplay a ridiculous policy proposal without seeming disloyal to his employer. However, as Karl correctly pointed out, such a proposal would not require a small tweak in the law but an entire constitutional amendment.
Libel laws in the U.S. are a state, not federal, matter. Every state has a different standard for defamation. Moreover, it is very difficult for a public official like Trump to successfully sue someone for slander. The Supreme Court has held that someone of his status must prove that a statement in question was made with “actual malice,” what’s known as the “Sullivan standard.”
The president may not like the New York Times’ coverage of his administration, but it’s all but impossible to prove that its reporters aren’t acting in good faith under current case law.
The only way the president could change that is to literally amend the First Amendment, an act that would provoke a strong public backlash. How could a sitting president attack America’s most iconic freedoms? Trump may be unpredictable, but he’s not stupid.
In short, Reince’s reiteration of Trump’s threat is a big nothingburger. It’s about time the administration drop the ridiculous threat for the sake of serious policymaking.