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Trump shows an unsettling interest in overhauling libel laws

The more Donald Trump talks about changing libel laws -- a subject that comes up with increasing frequency -- the more unsettling it becomes.
Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order establishing regulatory reform officers and task forces in US agencies in Washington, DC on February 24, 2017.

At a press conference this past weekend, Donald Trump eagerly pushed back against Michael Wolff's new best seller, "Fire and Fury," in a rather specific way. "The libel laws are very weak in this country," the president 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."

Yes, because if there's one person who should criticize others for saying whatever comes to their head, it's Donald J. Trump.

Regardless, this is apparently a subject of growing interest for the president. Reuters reports that Trump talked up the issue again today.

"Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness so we're going to take a strong look at that," he told reporters as he met members of his Cabinet. [...]"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 said.

If you watch the clip, note that he was reading from prepared notes when he said this. They weren't off-the-cuff comments; the president planned specifically to address the issue.

Trump added, "You can't say things that are false, knowingly false. and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account." Yes, his lack of self-awareness continues to be breathtaking.

For what it's worth, I suspect he's just blowing smoke. For years, Trump has loved to talk about all the people he's eager to sue for one slight or another, but in nearly every instance, he's been all talk.

That said, let's not be too quick to brush past the significance of the circumstances: a sitting president wants to make it easier for himself to sue his critics -- and at least rhetorically, he's committed to making legal changes on the subject.

This, alas, isn't new. The president tweeted in late March 2017 about changing libel laws, apparently because he wanted to go after the New York Times. A few weeks later, then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, using his best passive voice, told a national television audience that changing libel laws "is something that is being looked at."

In May, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that changing libel laws is "something that is being looked into, substantively and ... logistically."

In October, meanwhile, the president himself added that he believes it's "frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write."

I find it difficult to imagine officials making meaningful changes to the nation's libel laws, at least anytime soon, but that doesn't change the fact that Trump's posture on the subject is unsettling.