Donald Trump’s hostility towards journalism isn’t exactly new, but there have long been questions about what, if anything, the Republican intends to do about it.
About a month ago, while whining on Twitter about the New York Times, the president asked rhetorically whether it’s time to “change libel laws,” presumably to allow Trump to target news organizations he doesn’t like in court.
The bluster wasn’t followed by any presidential actions, so the tweet came and went fairly quickly, but the subject returned to the fore yesterday when White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus talked to ABC News’ Jon Karl.
KARL:[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 and how that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.
The Republican went on to say he wants news outlets “to be more responsible with how they report the news.” Karl said, “I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. It’s about whether or not the president should have a right to sue them.”
Priebus again said, “[T]his is something that is being looked at.”
Note the present tense: according to Donald Trump’s chief of staff, the idea of pursuing legal changes to empower the president to sue media outlets that upset him “is being looked at.”
To put it mildly, this is the sort of posture that requires some explanation from the White House. What is it, exactly, that’s being “looked at”? Does Team Trump have changes to the First Amendment in mind?
To be sure, this isn’t entirely new. As the Washington Post reported in March, “On the campaign trail in February 2016, Trump vowed, ‘I’m going to open up our libel laws, so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.’ In an October interview with a Miami TV station, he said he would like libel standards in the United States to mirror the less-protective ones in Britain.”
This, evidently, is not going away. Regardless, whether the White House realizes this or not, it’s not really up to a president to change libel laws. The fact that Trump and his team even have this on their minds, though, is unsettling.
This president’s authoritarian instincts have long been a point of concern, but this raises the volume. Trump and the White House are talking about targeting a pillar of our political system because news organizations make him mad.
It’s hard to imagine Team Trump seriously make such an effort a priority, but the fact that Priebus twice said the White House considers such changes on the table should make Americans uncomfortable.