Trump says Congress should change libel laws because of Woodward book

Trump says an assassination attempt on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was 'never even discussed' as he slaps down another claim from Woodward's bombshell book

  • President said Wednesday that he wishes Congress would change federal libel laws, apparently not realizing that most cases are tried in state courts
  • Push on Twitter comes following initial reporting on Bob Woodward's book 'Fear'
  • He had the same reaction in January after Michael Wolff's 'Fire and Fury' hit bookstore shelves
  • On Wednesday he tweeted a complaint that authors who attack him 'get away with it without retribution or cost' 
  • In March 2017 Trump went after The New York Times, saying it had 'disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?' 
  • He boasted during a March 2016 campaign rally that 'I'm going to open up our libel laws' so he can sue newspapers 'and win lots of money'

By David Martosko, U.s. Political Editor For Dailymail.com

Published: 08:05 EDT, 5 September 2018 | Updated: 15:14 EDT, 5 September 2018

Donald Trump says he 'never even discussed' a plot to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as claimed in a bombshell book by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward.

Trump told reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office that Woodward's expose on his presidency, 'Fear' is total 'fiction' and an assassination attempt was 'never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated, and it should not have been written about in the book.'  

'The book means nothing. It's a work of fiction. Already General Mattis has come out very, very strongly. And I think you know General Mattis, he does what he wants to do, he's a very independent guy. He was insulted by the remarks that were attributed to him and he came out with a very strong statement,' Trump protested. 'General John Kelly, the same exact thing. He said he was insulted by what it said.'

Trump told reporters as he met with the Emir of Kuwait, 'If you look back at Woodward's past, you have the same problem with other presidents. He likes to get publicity, sell some books.'

The president continued to fume about Woodward's book, ripping into him minutes later in a second, unexpected White House avail with press.

'We have a deal with South Korea. I read another phony thing in the book about the trade deal, that certain people didn't want me to look at. We've made a deal with South Korea. It may be signed during the United Nations conference in a couple of weeks. The deal is done,' he claimed, 'and we'll do a ceremonial signing over the next very short period of time. But that was another thing in the book that was just totally false.' 

The president had reacted earlier on Wednesday to the publication of the newest mud-dragging book about his presidency by musing publicly that stronger libel laws should have prevented it.

Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office that Bob Woodward's book on his presidency, 'Fear' is 'total fiction' and the alleged assassination plot was 'never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated, and it should not have been written about in the book'
Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office that Bob Woodward's book on his presidency, 'Fear' is 'total fiction' and the alleged assassination plot was 'never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated, and it should not have been written about in the book'

Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office that Bob Woodward's book on his presidency, 'Fear' is 'total fiction' and the alleged assassination plot was 'never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated, and it should not have been written about in the book'

'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?' Trump tweeted following initial news coverage of 'Fear,' a book by famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward.

Libel, the act of publishing false and defamatory material about specific people or institutions, is typically adjudicated at the state level.

That means Trump would need to persuade state legislatures to tighten their existing statutes in order to generate a meaningful change.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump
Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward

President Donald Trump on Wednesday hinted at the herculean task of changing America's libel laws, following initial revelations from a critical book by Bob Woodward

Trump wrote on Twitter that he doesn't 'know why Washington politicians don't change libel laws' – ignoring the fact that state laws, not federal laws, generally address libel
Trump wrote on Twitter that he doesn't 'know why Washington politicians don't change libel laws' – ignoring the fact that state laws, not federal laws, generally address libel

Trump wrote on Twitter that he doesn't 'know why Washington politicians don't change libel laws' – ignoring the fact that state laws, not federal laws, generally address libel

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders wouldn't take the bait and dodged a question on 'Good Morning America' about whether the claims in Woodward's book 'Fear' amount to libel
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders wouldn't take the bait and dodged a question on 'Good Morning America' about whether the claims in Woodward's book 'Fear' amount to libel

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders wouldn't take the bait and dodged a question on 'Good Morning America' about whether the claims in Woodward's book 'Fear' amount to libel

Minutes after the president tweeted about libel, his press secretary was slapping at Woodward more gently in a 'Good Morning America' interview.

'We've seen a few excerepts that have been pretty widely pushed back on by some of the most-respected people in our country,' Sarah Sanders said in response to a question about whether the author had libeled Trump. 'We'll see what happens.'

In January the famously litigious president railed against author Michael Wolff following publication of 'Fire and Fury,' saying he planned to 'take a strong look' at reforming America's libel laws.

'Fear' is the third deeply sourced anti-Trump book of the year, following tomes by Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault-Newman
'Fear' is the third deeply sourced anti-Trump book of the year, following tomes by Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault-Newman

'Fear' is the third deeply sourced anti-Trump book of the year, following tomes by Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault-Newman

He said at the time that he wanted a path for courtroom consequences 'when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone.'

'Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness. ... You can't say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account,' he said then.

Trump had already hinted multiple times in the past, both as a candidate and as president, that he would like to make it easier to push back against media outlets that he believes treat him unfairly.

In March 2017 he specifically went after The New York Times in a tweet, saying it had 'disgraced the media world.'

'Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?' he asked.

His specific beefs with Woodward's reporting include stern denials that he ever called attorney general Jeff Sessions 'mentally retarded'.

'The already discredited Woodward book, so many lies and phony sources, has me calling Jeff Sessions "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. He made this up to divide!' he tweeted Tuesday.

Trump also tweeted statements from John Kelly and James Mattis that refuted other parts of Woodward's book, which alleges that Kelly called Trump an 'idiot' and Mattis compared him to a 'fifth grader.'

Trump charged on Tuesday that Woodward may have fabricated parts of his book, and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a tweet that the charges didn't add up
Trump charged on Tuesday that Woodward may have fabricated parts of his book, and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a tweet that the charges didn't add up

Trump charged on Tuesday that Woodward may have fabricated parts of his book, and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a tweet that the charges didn't add up

AMERICA'S LIBEL LAWS THAT TRUMP LOVES TO HATE

Most statutes allowing Americans to sue for libel and defamation are state laws, but the definition of libel is largely the same everywhere in the U.S.

Libel is the act of publishing a false statement about someone that harms them or their reputation. 

In most states it's considered a 'civil tort,' not a crime, which means a newspaper, author or broadcaster can be hauled into court to face a lawsuit filed by the victim.

But 17 states do have criminal statutes prohibiting defamation. 

In general, ordinary people only need to prove that a statement of fact was false in order to win a libel case.

But so-called 'public figures' – which can range from the President of the United States to practically anyone with a Wikipedia profile – have a higher burden of proof called 'actual malice.'

That means proving that the writer or broadcaster knew in advance that a statement was wrong and recklessly published it anyway.

How that is any different from what Trump said he wanted is hard to tell. 

He said: 'If somebody says something that's totally false and knowingly false, that the person that has been abused, defamed, libeled, [should] have meaningful recourse.'

The key word is 'knowingly' which is precisely the 'actual malice' test set by the courts.

Most states allow people who are libeled by a news outlet or other publisher to demand a formal retraction. If that happens, they lose the right to sue. 

However, in many cases such a correction is one of the demands a lawsuit makes – along with money. 

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, setting a high bar for plaintiffs to prove they were defamed.

That also restricts Congress from passing federal libel laws that might override state laws. 

'The Woodward book has already been refuted and discredited by General (Secretary of Defense) James Mattis and General (Chief of Staff) John Kelly. Their quotes were made up frauds, a con on the public. Likewise other stories and quotes. Woodward is a Dem operative? Notice timing?' the president wrote.

Trump first raised the idea of libel law reform during a February 2016 campaign rally in Fort Worth, Texas, warning the Times and The Washington Post that 'we're going to open up those libel laws, folks, and we're going to have people sue you like you never got sued before.'

'If I become president – oh, do they have problems,' he told 8,000 screaming fans.

'And one of the things I'm gonna do ... I'm going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,' Trump boasted.

'We're going to open up those libel laws. So that when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they're totally protected.'

Most state laws set a tough standard for proving libel against public figures like Trump.

Cases filed by ordinary Americans can be won on the basis of whether or not a statement is false when it's published.

But public figures have to prove 'actual malice' – meaning that a news outlet knew a statement was false when it published it, and that it intended to cause harm to its target.

Woodward's book portrays the president as an impetuous and sometimes vicious boss who repeatedly ripped into Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he decided to to recuse himself from the Justice Department's Russia probe.

The president has gone after media outlets in the past, suggesting that changing libel laws would help him fight back against 'fake news' coverage
The president has gone after media outlets in the past, suggesting that changing libel laws would help him fight back against 'fake news' coverage

The president has gone after media outlets in the past, suggesting that changing libel laws would help him fight back against 'fake news' coverage

Highlights: The most searing quotes in Bob Woodward's book

WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT TRUMP:

JOHN KELLY, CHIEF OF STAFF: 'He's an idiot. It's pointless to try to convince him of anything. He's gone off the rails. We're in Crazytown. I don't even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I've ever had.'

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  'Fifth- or sixth-grader'

REX TILLERSON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: 'He's a f***ing moron.'

JOHN DOWN, FORMER PERSONAL ATTORNEY: 'F***ing liar.'

JOHN DOWD ON HOW TRANSCRIPT OF A MUELLER INTERVIEW WOULD BE DESCRIBED BY FOREIGN LEADERS: 'I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?'

GARY COHN, FORMER CHIEF ECONOMIC ADVISER: 'A professional liar'  

ROB PORTER, FORMER STAFF SECRETARY WHO QUIT WHEN BOTH EX-WIVES ACCUSED HIM OF ABUSE: 'A third of my job was trying to react to some of the really dangerous ideas that he had and try to give him reasons to believe that maybe they weren't such good ideas.'

WHAT THEY SAID TO EACH OTHER:

STEVE BANNON TO IVANKA TRUMP: 'You're nothing but a f***ing staffer! You walk around this place and act like you're on charge, and you're not. You're on staff!'

IVANKA TRUMP TO STEVE BANNON: 'I'm not a staffer!  I'll never be a staffer. I'm the first daughter and I'm never going to be a staffer!'

JOHN KELLY TO GARY COHN:  'If that was me, I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his a** six different times.'

DOWD TO ROBERT MUELLER: 'He just made something up. That's his nature.'     

WHAT TRUMP SAID ABOUT THEM:

BARACK OBAMA: 'Weak d**k' 

RUDY GIULIANI, PERSONAL ATTORNEY: 'Rudy, you're a baby. I've never seen a worse defense of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You're like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?' 

WILBUR ROSS, COMMERCE SECRETARY:  'I don't trust you. I don't want you doing any more negotiations. You're past your prime.'  

H.R McMASTER, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: 'Dresses like a beer salesman.'

REINCE PRIEBUS, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: 'Like a little rat. He just scurries around.'

AFTER EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT FATAH AL-SISSI ASKED IF HE WAS GOING TO BE AROUND: 'Like a kick in the nuts.'

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN DICTATOR: 'Let's f***ing kill him! Let's go in. Let's kill the f***ing lot of them.'

The president allegedly called him a 'traitor' and vented: 'This guy is mentally retarded. He's this dumb Southerner. … He couldn't even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.'

Woodward quoted White House Chief of Staff John Kelly slamming Trump after he blew a fuse during a meeting.

'He's an idiot. It's pointless to try to convince him of anything. He's gone off the rails,' Kelly said, in Woodward's telling. 'We're in Crazytown. I don't even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I've ever had.' 

Kelly fired back at the claims, saying in a statement: 'The idea that I ever called the President is not true, in fact it's exactly the opposite. ... This is both a pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from his many successes.'

In another episode described in 'Fear,' Trump questioned the utility of U.S. early warning systems in Alaska to identify a nuclear attack from North Korea.

When Trump asked about it, Defense Secretary Mattis schooled him: 'We're doing this in order to prevent World War III.'

Mattis later told colleagues Trump had the mental ability of 'a fifth- or sixth-grader,' acording to Woodward's sources.

On Tuesday he denied the account, saying: 'The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward's book were never uttered by me or in my presence. While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.' 

A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Rob Manning, said Woodward never interviewed Mattis.

'Mr. Woodward never discussed or verified the alleged quotes included in his book with Secretary Mattis' or anyone within the Defense Department, Manning said. 

Previous accounts during Trump's first year had former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling Trump a 'moron,' a charge he did not explicitly deny.

Woodward also reported that after Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump told Mattis he wanted the Syrian leader taken out, saying: 'Let's f***ing kill him! Let's go in. Let's kill the f***ing lot of them'

Mattis assured Trump he would work on it, but then told a senior aide they'd do nothing of the kind, Woodward writes. National security advisers instead developed options for a more modest airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley denied Tuesday that Trump had ever planned to assassinate Assad. She told reporters at the U.N. headquarters that she had been privy to conversations about the Syrian chemical weapons attacks, 'and I have not once ever heard the president talk about assassinating Assad.'

She said people should take what is written in books about the president with 'a grain of salt.'

Woodward's book follows the January release of Michael Wolff's 'Fire and Fury,' which led to a rift between Trump and former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Wolff's book attracted attention with its vivid anecdotes but suffered from numerous factual inaccuracies.

It also comes just weeks after former White House aide and 'Apprentice' contestant Omarosa Manigault-Newman published a tell-all about her time in the West Wing, including audio recordings of her firing by Kelly and a follow-up conversation with the president in which he claimed to have been unaware of her ouster. 

White House aides on Tuesday coordinated with other officials quoted in the book to dispute troublesome passages. But insiders speculated the fallout could be worse than that from 'Fire and Fury,' given Woodward's storied reputation.

Woodward's book was already ranked as the top-selling book on Amazon on Tuesday.

Trump has been increasingly critical of anonymous sources used by reporters covering his administration. Woodward's account relies on deep background conversations with sources, meaning their identities are not disclosed.

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