President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday morning in response to reports of Bob Woodward‘s new book that paints an unflattering portrait of the current state of the White House. The book cites various Washington figures who are quoted as making negative statements about the president, but some of them have since denied saying such things.
Trump commented on this by lamenting 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.” He then wondered, “Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?”
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. Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2018
Of course, there’s a pretty good reason why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws: there are none for them to change. Defamation laws (libel for print statements, slander for spoken ones) are enacted by individual states, not the federal government.
The Supreme Court also weighed in on the issue of defamation when it comes to public figures in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan, which focused on an Alabama libel law. The Court said that constitutional free speech protections require a higher standard when it comes to statements about public figures. In addition to a statement being false and damaging, the person making it must have acted with “actual malice,” which means knowledge that the statement was false, or reckless disregard for whether it was true.
That means that even if some of the statements about Trump in Woodward’s book are false, if he learned about them from sources he trusted and believed the information was true, he’s in the clear. If, however, he knew they were false, or was irresponsible in publishing things without caring about whether they were true, Trump would likely have grounds to bring a case against him under the relevant state statute.
If he wants to rely on members of Congress to make things easier for him, he’s barking up the wrong tree.
[Image via via MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images]