Trump Vows ‘Strong Look’ at Libel Laws

President Donald Trump is greeted by military personnel as he arrives for a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation Monday, Jan. 8, 2018 in Nashville, Tenn. (Larry McCormack/The Tennessean via AP)

(CN) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday vowed to take a “strong look” at the nation’s libel laws in the wake of the publication of the best-selling “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which portrays him as a dysfunctional leader presiding over an administration in chaos.

Speaking from a prepared statement before a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Trump said “our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values and American fairness.”

“We’re going to take a very, very strong look at that,” he said.

Trump went on to say he wants people who are the subject of false claims to have “meaningful recourse in our courts.”

“If somebody says something that’s totally false and knowingly false, that the person that has been abused, defamed, libeled, [should] have meaningful recourse,” he said.

“The libel laws are very weak in this country,” he told reporters. “If they were strong, it would be very helpful. You wouldn’t have things like that happen where you can say whatever comes to your head.”

Laurence H. Tribe, a professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, responded Wednesday by suggesting “President Trump seems not to know that under current law public officials like him can already sue for damage to reputation caused by knowingly false statements.

“That standard, which is the one Trump says he’d like to enact, is the very one that was articulated by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, decided in 1964,” Tribe said. “Remarkably, the president seems unaware that he’s complaining about a problem that doesn’t exist – unless he wants to return the law to the mess it was in before 1964, when the press could be driven into bankruptcy just for stating opinions with which a politician disagreed or for making merely negligent and immaterial errors. It makes me wonder what he pays all those lawyers to do, play golf with him?”

In New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment protects statements about public figures, including false ones, unless officials can prove actual malice.

Trump’s lawyer threatened to sue the “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff and the publisher Henry Holt to stop its release, but its publication was moved forward in the face of huge demand. No lawsuit has yet been filed.

Trump has floated changes to libel statutes in response to negative media coverage in the past, saying as recently as October that it’s “disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.”

State courts and state legislatures are responsible for codifying protections against libel and defamation. That means Trump would need to either persuade Congress to pass a far-reaching federal law if he wanted to part with this legal tradition or or lobby states to tighten their existing statutes.

Before the press was ushered out of the cabinet meeting, Trump said, “We want fairness. You can’t say things that are false — knowingly false — and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account.”

This is a developing story …

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