A day after Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward issued a stirring call for the press to hold Donald Trump to account, the president’s chief of staff said the White House is actively considering a change to libel laws affecting news reporting.
“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at,” said Reince Priebus, appearing on ABC’s This Week. “How that gets executed and whether that goes anywhere is a different story.”
On the campaign trail last year, Trump responded to reporting on his policies and background by floating the possibility of a change to libel laws. Such a move would in reality require a change to the US constitution, which enshrines freedom of the press in the first amendment, the supreme court having ruled on the issue.
Undaunted, the president returned to the theme on Thursday, writing on Twitter: “The failing [New York Times] has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?”
On ABC, Priebus cited “articles out there that have no basis of fact and we’re sitting here and 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters”.
Links between Trump aides and Russia affecting the election campaign are the subject of House, Senate and FBI investigations as well as anonymously sourced reporting by major news outlets. Trump has been strongly critical of such reporting, on Russia and other subjects.
Woodward and Bernstein, who won Pulitzer prizes for their exposure of the cover-up of criminal activity by the Nixon White House, spoke at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington on Saturday night.
Trump did not attend, breaking precedent to hold a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania instead. At the rally, the president repeated criticism of mainstream media outlets which he has often accused of producing “fake news”.
In Washington on Saturday, Woodward said: “Mr President, the media is not fake news. Let’s take that off the table as we proceed.”
He added: “Our reporting needs to get both fact and tones right. The effort today to get the best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith.
“Whatever the climate, whether the media is revered or reviled, we should and must persist and I believe we will. Any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.”
Bernstein said: “This question of what is news becomes even more relevant and essential when we are covering the president of the United States.
“Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press more the issue in Watergate instead of the conduct of the president and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the reporting speak.”
On ABC, Priebus was asked if the president should be able to sue news outlets over stories he didn’t like.
“Here’s what I think,” he said. “I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired–”
Interrupted, he said: “And I answered the question, I said this is something that is being looked at. It’s something that as far as how it gets executed, where we go with it, that’s another issue.
“But I think this is a frustration of unnamed sources, of things the FBI have told me personally is complete BS, written in a newspaper article, in my office, one-on-one, this here is not true.
“And guess what? But it’s sitting there on the front page. So how is it possible? And what do we have? Twenty-four seven cable about a story about intelligence that the actual intelligence agency says is not true. Yet we deal with it every day.”
Priebus was also asked about Trump’s suggestion that people who burn the American flag should be jailed or have their citizenship revoked. The supreme court has said burning the flag is a form of free speech.
“People need to stand up for our flag,” Priebus said, adding: “It’s something that, again, is probably going to get looked at.”