Priebus: Administration Has 'Looked at' Changing Libel Law

May 1, 2017
In The News

The war between the news media and President Donald Trump just got worse.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC Sunday that the Trump administration has "looked at" possible changes in 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 said, adding: "How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story." Priebus complained about "articles out there that have no basis or fact" and referred to news reports on cable news outlets about alleged contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russia. Priebus said the media should "be more responsible with how they report the news."

Priebus' comments may be designed to back the media away from critical coverage of Trump, who raised the same possibility of changing libel laws while he was campaigning last year. But making such changes would be very difficult. The Supreme Court has established a tough standard for public officials to win libel judgments, including the need to prove malice. And it would probably take either a dramatic shift in the outlook of the court or a constitutional amendment to accomplish Trump's goal – prospects that seem remote.

The initial reaction from some legislators was hostile to altering libel protections. "White House has no power to change the #1stAmendment, and we Americans will fight any effort to abridge the freedom of speech or the press," Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., wrote on Twitter.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., tweeted, "This is marching America down the road to authoritarianism. Reince Priebus statements on stifling the press should alarm even Republicans."

Priebus' comments came in the wake of one of the most serious dustups yet between Trump and the media. Trump bashed news organizations for dishonesty as part of his speech to a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Saturday night, at the same time that news media leaders bashed Trump in Washington for attempting to damage their credibility. The media leaders made their comments at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

These dueling attacks showed showed how poisonous the relationship between the two sides has become, and revealed that neither Trump nor the media are willing to back down.

Trump has repeatedly called his conflict with the media a "war," and he has berated the media as the "enemy" of the American people. But Trump's ferocious rhetoric appears to be strengthening the resolve of at least some news organizations to hold him accountable for his misstatements, reversals and mistakes.

Trump also couldn't resist blasting the media in an essay published in the Washington Post Sunday. "Issue by issue, department by department, we are giving the people their country back," he wrote. "After decades of a shrinking middle class, open borders and the mass offshoring of American jobs and wealth, this government is working for the citizens of our country and no one else.

"The same establishment media that concealed these problems--and profited from them--is obviously not going to tell this story. That is why we are taking our message directly to America."

Trump was the first president not to attend the WHCA dinner since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan couldn't be there because had been shot in an assassination attempt. Trump boycotted the event, noting that he didn't want to associate with his media antagonists.