Stung by the latest tell-all book to hit his White House, President Donald Trump renewed his attacks on author Bob Woodward by suggesting Wednesday that the government tighten libel laws – though the president’s role in doing that is probably nonexistent.
“Isn’t it a shame that someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost,” Trump tweeted. “Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?”
Later, during a photo op with Amir of Kuwait, Trump said: “The book means nothing; it’s a work of fiction.”
Trump also suggested changing the libel laws back during his presidential campaign – in response to news stories he didn’t like – but has made no specific proposals in that area since moving into the White House in January 2017.
There probably isn’t anything Trump, or Congress, can do about libel laws in any event.
For one thing, there is no federal libel statute. States set their own libel statutes, and a series of court rulings have shaped them.
It’s difficult for public figures to win a libel suit; the Supreme Court says they must prove actual malice and reckless disregard for the truth – a high legal bar – and writers and speakers have wide latitude under free speech protections in the First Amendment to criticize and report on elected officials.
The catalyst this time is Woodward’s new book – “Fear: Trump in the White House” – in which aides describe the president as an unhinged “liar” who does not seem interested in learning the details of the issues he has to face.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly described Trump as an “idiot” who is running “Crazytown,” while Defense Secretary James Mattis is quoted as saying Trump acted like a “fifth- or sixth-grader” at one meeting.
“Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses,” Woodward writes, according to a leaked excerpt. “It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”
The book is scheduled for public release on Tuesday.
Woodward also reports that Trump tends to berate aides, conduct that the president defended in a separate tweet on Wednesday morning.
Claiming that “my Administration has done more in less than two years than any other Administration in the history of our Country,” Trump tweeted that “I’m tough as hell on people & if I weren’t, nothing would get done. Also, I question everybody & everything-which is why I got elected!”
Trump is seeking to undermine Woodward even though he has praised the author in the past, and told him in a phone conversation just last month that he has always been fair.
Back in 2013, as members of the Barack Obama administration criticized a Woodward book about them, Trump tweeted out: “Only the Obama WH can get away with attacking Bob Woodward.”
As details of the book began to leak out Tuesday, the White House hastily put together a series of responses.
Kelly denied calling Trump an “idiot,” while Mattis denied uttering “the contemptuous words” attributed to him by Woodward.
The White House denials echoed those made about previous critical books, particularly those by journalist Michael Wolff and former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.
As he did Tuesday night, Trump tweeted out the statements by Kelly and Mattis on Wednesday morning, while adding some denials of his own. In one of his missives, Trump said: “Thank you General Kelly, book is total fiction!”
While Trump has frequently attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he denied Woodward’s reporting that he has called the former Alabama senator “mentally retarded” and “a dumb Southerner.”
“I said NEITHER, never used those terms on anyone, including Jeff, and being a southerner is a GREAT thing,” Trump tweeted, claiming that Woodward “made this up to divide!”
As for changing libel laws in the wake of Woodward, it’s highly unlikely.
“There is no federal libel law for President Trump to bully Congress to change, and the president does not have the authority to change state libel laws,” said Brian Hauss, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Furthermore, the First Amendment provides strong protections against libel liability, particularly with respect to statements about public figures or matters of public concern.”