Why Donald Trump Changed His Mind About Libel Laws

President-elect Donald Trump spent Tuesday morning angrily tweeting at the New York Times and broadcasting his cancellation of a planned meeting with the newspaper's editorial staff. Later in the day, though, he ultimately changed his mind and did meet with them, and Trump's meeting with the New York Times was liveblogged by reporters who also attended.

At the meeting Tuesday, Trump chastised reporters for "treating [him] very rough," according to a tweet from New York Times reporter Mike Grynbaum. To anyone with even a faint awareness of the relationship between Trump and the New York Times, the president-elect's behavior is unsurprising.

Tensions have been high between the president-elect and one of the United States' most revered newspapers, particularly given Trump's penchant for threatening to sue them. In October, when the New York Times ran an article quoting two women who alleged that Trump had kissed and groped them without their consent, Trump's lawyers demanded a retraction and threatened a lawsuit; the New York Times refused to retract the piece. Trump also threatened to sue them over a September article reporting multimillion dollar tax breaks he allegedly received.

At Tuesday's meeting, reporters asked Trump about his thoughts on the First Amendment. "I think you'll be happy, I think you'll be happy," Trump said, as well as about his campaign threat to "open up" libel laws in order to sue more newspapers.

Apparently, Trump's opinions have shifted since his campaign. Grynbaum tweeted that the president-elect said, “You know, YOU might be sued a lot more.’ I said, You know, I hadn’t thought of that."

Of course, Trump would be wise to shut down any more talk of libel laws while he still can, considering his own track record. The Toronto Star compiled a list of 560 statements Trump made during his campaign that they deemed false.

I think it's more likely that his response was an attempt at sidestepping the question. Trump has appeared to waffle on, avoid discussing, or walk back campaign promises repeatedly since Election Day, including a proposed ban on Muslims in America and a proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Of course, Trump could still attempt to do any and all of these things, regardless of what his most recent language has indicated.

Reporters can take solace in the fact that "opening up" libel laws — presumably, Trump meant making it easier to obtain a libel conviction — does not mean much on a federal level. Defamation, according to the Wall Street Journal, is largely a matter of state law, not federal law, and is primarily sculpted by judges deciding First Amendment cases.

Despite the scant legal avenues that Trump would actually have to alter libel law as president, his threats against freedom of the press should still be a serious cause for concern.