Trump Renews Pledge to ‘Take a Strong Look’ at Libel Laws

Posted January 10, 2018 7:15 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2018 7:18 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump on Wednesday repeated a pledge to make it easier for people to sue news organizations and publishers for defamation, denouncing the country’s libel laws as a “sham” a day after his personal lawyer filed a lawsuit against a major media outlet, BuzzFeed News.

The salvo from Trump, who has long expressed hostility toward traditional press freedoms, followed a days-long effort by him and his team to undercut the unflattering portrayal of the White House in a new book by writer Michael Wolff.

“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws, so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts,” Trump said during a public portion of a Cabinet meeting in the White House.

The president added, “Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness.”

First Amendment lawyers were quick to point out that Trump has little power to modify those laws, barring a Supreme Court appeal or constitutional amendment. Other libel laws are determined at the state level, where Trump, as president, has no direct influence.

“President Trump’s threat to revise our country’s libel laws is, frankly, not credible,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement Wednesday.

Trump’s remarks reflected a broader frustration in his inner circle over critical coverage in recent days that has cast him as an erratic and ill-prepared commander in chief.

On Tuesday, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, filed a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed News for publishing, last January, a salacious and mostly unsubstantiated intelligence dossier that purported to describe how Russia had aided the Trump campaign. The dossier characterized Cohen as a central figure in what it described as a globe-spanning conspiracy.

Cohen also filed a separate suit in federal court against Fusion GPS, the research firm that prepared the dossier. Fusion GPS and BuzzFeed both said they would aggressively defend themselves against the suits.

Last week, a lawyer working on Trump’s behalf, Charles J. Harder of Harder Mirell & Abrams in Beverly Hills, California, sent an 11-page cease-and-desist letter to the publisher of Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

Harder’s letter demanded that the publisher, Henry Holt and Co., withdraw the book from stores and apologize; the publisher responded by moving up the book’s release date and increasing its first print run to 1 million copies, from 150,000.

Trump’s remarks on Wednesday about libel law seemed, at times, to refer obliquely to the book, which debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and has provided fodder for dozens of news articles, opinion pieces and cable news segments.

“We want fairness,” the president said. “Can’t say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account. We are going to take a very, very strong look at that, and I think what the American people want to see is fairness.”

As a presidential candidate, Trump made sport of the reporters who stood in fenced-off areas during his speeches, often whipping up the crowd against them.

He also said on the campaign trail that he would “open up” the country’s libel laws — although he later backed off that pledge in an interview with editors and writers at The Times, joking that he personally might be in trouble if the laws were loosened.

“Somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more,'” Trump, who propagated false rumors that Barack Obama was born in Africa and that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz had aided the assassination of John F. Kennedy, said at the time.

Trump is no stranger to defamation claims, having filed several of them himself, without success. In 2009, a New Jersey judge dismissed a $5 billion suit brought by Trump against a biographer, Timothy L. O’Brien; Trump had claimed that O’Brien understated his personal wealth.

The president’s comments about the news media on Wednesday also extended to one of his favorite punching bags: network news. He taunted the television reporters in the room, saying they were dependent on his activities for ratings.

“If Trump doesn’t win in three years, they’re all out of business,” the president said. “You’re all out of business.”