White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on Sunday that the Trump administration has “looked at” making changes to libel law to make it easier to sue journalists who publish stories that President Trump doesn’t like.
Trump has previously suggested that he could “change libel laws” to crack down on the New York Times, which he calls a “disgrace.”
When ABC News’ Jon Karl asked about this comment from Trump, Priebus acknowledged it’s something the administration has considered, though he declined to provide specific details.
“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at, and how that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story,” Priebus said. “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.”
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) April 30, 2017
During the interview, Karl attempted to interject to note the difference between disagreeing with media outlets’ coverage and suing them for libel. Priebus responded that “newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news.”
On the campaign trail, Trump frequently suggested that he wanted to “open up libel laws” to make it easier to sue media outlets.
As president, he does not actually have this authority. Libel law is administered by state courts and state legislatures, not the federal government. Sweeping changes to existing precedent would require either Supreme Court intervention or a constitutional amendment, neither of which Trump can singlehandedly accomplish.
Still, Trump’s fiery rhetoric against the media continues to deeply concern proponents of press freedom around the world.
Trump’s comments about the media carry a lot of weight now that he occupies the Oval Office. His rhetoric can signal to other countries that the United States is not firmly committed to the principles of press freedom, which may “embolden autocratic leaders around the world” to retaliate against journalists, as Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists explained to Politico.
Last month, dozens of press freedom groups published an open letter in support of the First Amendment, warning that Trump’s “effort to delegitimize the press undermines democracy.”
Priebus’ comments came the day after many members of the media gathered at the White House Correspondents Dinner to emphasize the value of a free press. Trump, the first president in decades to skip the event, was not in attendance — instead, he was hosting a rally in Pennsylvania, during which he blasted mainstream outlets like CNN and MSNBC as “fake news” and said the media had earned a “very, very big fat failing grade.”