A number of press reports have picked up this exchange this morning between ABC’s Jonathan Karl and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. But people have missed the real significance. Priebus doesn’t discuss changing ‘press laws’ or ‘libel laws’. He specifically says that the White House has considered and continues to consider amending or even abolishing the 1st Amendment because of critical press coverage of President Trump.
Sound hyperbolic? Look at the actual exchange (emphasis added) …
KARL: I want to ask you about two things the President has said on related issues. First of all, there was what he said about opening up the libel laws. Tweeting “the failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” That would require, as I understand it, a constitutional amendment. Is he really going to pursue that? Is that something he wants to pursue?
PRIEBUS: I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story. But when you have articles out there that have no basis or fact and we’re sitting here on 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters—
KARL: So you think the President should be able to sue the New York Times for stories he doesn’t like?
PRIEBUS: Here’s what I think. I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired.
KARL: I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. It’s about whether or not the President should have a right to sue them.
PRIEBUS: And I already answered the question. I said this is something that is being looked at. But it’s something that as far as how it gets executed, where we go with it, that’s another issue.
Karl says, accurately, that that kind of clampdown on 1st Amendment rights would require amending the Constitution. Is that what Priebus means, Karl asks? Yes, it is, says Priebus.
Now one might respond to this saying, ‘Okay, technically that’s what he said. But he probably doesn’t actually mean it.’
To which I think the answer is, sure maybe he doesn’t mean it but why would anyone assume that? He said it and repeated it. The changes President Trump wants are blocked by decades of decades of jurisprudence which is little contested, unlike other hot button points of constitutional law. If you want what Trump wants, you have to amend the constitution – and not the constitution in general but the 1st Amendment specifically. Amending the 1st Amendment to allow the head of state to sue people who say things he doesn’t like amounts to abolishing it.
None of these are tenuous connections. Each link in the chain of reasoning follows logically from the other.
This, needless to say, should set off everyone’s alarm bells. If this isn’t really what Priebus meant, he should be given the chance to categorically disavow it. The plain meaning of the words, on the record, is that abridging or abolishing the 1st Amendment is something the Trump White House is currently considering.
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