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

Posted January 10, 2018 4:13 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump on Wednesday repeated a pledge to change the nation’s libel laws in a way that would make it easier for people to sue news organizations and publishers for defamation, another salvo from a president who has expressed hostility toward long-standing press freedoms.

“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 told reporters during a meeting of his Cabinet in the White House.

Expanding on the theme, he added, “Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness.”

Trump and his close associates have taken steps in recent days to attack reporting that has portrayed the president in a critical light. 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 a new book that has enraged the administration, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff.

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 the book’s first print run to 1 million, from 150,000.

On Tuesday, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court against Fusion GPS, the firm behind a salacious and mostly unsubstantiated intelligence dossier that purported to describe how Russia had aided the Trump campaign. The dossier portrayed Cohen as a central figure in what it described as a conspiracy.

Cohen also filed a separate suit in New York state court against BuzzFeed, which published the dossier. BuzzFeed said it would aggressively defend itself against the suit.

In reality, Trump has very little ability to change the nation’s libel laws, which are enshrined by First Amendment principles and Supreme Court rulings, including the landmark 1964 opinion, New York Times v. Sullivan. Other libel laws are determined at the state level, where Trump, as president, cannot directly change them.

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.

His remarks Wednesday seemed at times to refer obliquely to Wolff’s book, which portrays Trump as ill prepared for the Oval Office.

“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.”

Trump also took time to taunt television news networks, saying that they were dependent on his activities for ratings. “If Trump doesn’t win in three years, they’re all out of business,” he told the small gathering of reporters. “You’re all out of business.”

He also claimed that network anchors had sent him “letters of congratulations” about a Cabinet meeting that he hosted Tuesday, which was broadcast on television. Trump said he had received “about two hours” of positive coverage from news networks, “and then they went a little bit south on us.”

“It was fun,” Trump added. “They probably wish they didn’t send us those letter of congratulations, but it was good. I’m sure their ratings were fantastic.”