WASHINGTON — A top White House aide said changing libel laws is “something we’ve looked at” — echoing some of President Donald Trump’s strongest anti-media rhetoric.
Reince Priebus, the president’s chief of staff, said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that the White House has discussed potential changes to laws that are intended to safeguard free speech.
“How it gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story,” Priebus said.
But he added that he thinks “newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news.”
Changing the laws wouldn’t be easy. Libel laws vary by state and there’s no federal libel law. And weakening press freedoms would likely take a constitutional amendment.
Trump and his administration have made attacks on the media a recurring part of his platform. Changing libel laws was even part of Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric.
In February 2016, Trump said if he won the presidency he would “open up our libel laws so when (media) write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Trump has frequently revisited the issue while attacking one of his favorite media targets — The New York Times.
New York Times editor-in-chief Dean Baquet weighed in on Priebus’s comments, calling his remarks “dangerous.” He added Trump is “making the media sort of the punching bag.”
“We’re supposed to be tough, we’re supposed to ask him hard questions. I’m not sure he gets that,” Baquet said. “The more he beats us up, to be frank, I think that’s bad for the country. I think it’s bad for the free flow of information and criticism.”
Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate case as a reporter for the Washington Post, said Trump’s recent tone toward the press has been “venomous.”
Trump decried the mainstream media during a rally Saturday in Pennsylvania that he held to tout the accomplishments of his first 100 days in office.
“We have a president who doesn’t understand the Constitution, who is ignorant of (the media’s) history,” Bernstein said. “He deserves our respect as the duly elected president of the United States. That does not mean he does not deserve to be called out when he lies.”