Here's Why No President (Including Trump) Can Just Change Libel Laws

Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Wednesday, as he's done several times before, President Donald Trump called for changes to the country's libel laws, insisting that news outlets have been publishing "things that are knowingly false." This raises a big question: can Trump change the U.S. Constitution? Because if he can't change the Constitution, then his dreams of overhauling American libel law almost certainly aren't going anywhere.

That's because how libel works isn't dictated by a federal law, but rather, by state laws afforded constitutional authority by the First Amendment. Indeed, the way libel law is enforced and how cases are brought can vary from state to state, not unlike how it can vary widely from one country to the next.

The comments on Wednesday came after the release of journalist Michael Wolff's explosive book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. The book contains some salacious details about Trump's administration and his close inner circle, and the president has vehemently lambasted it as "fake news."

The upshot to Trump's comments on U.S. libel law is that the president can't personally rewrite the libel laws ― we're meant to be a country with three co-equal branches of government, after all ― and he can't get it done by pressuring the congressional GOP, either. To actually accomplish what he's suggesting would either require an overwhelming libel reform movement to sweep through Republican-controlled state legislatures, or for the passage of a Constitutional amendment.

Either of these possibilities is extremely unlikely.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In the first place, there's no evidence that the Republican Party leadership has any interest in joining Trump in a politically costly battle over libel laws, much less Republicans serving in state legislatures. With the 2018 midterm elections on the horizon, and the recent defeat of Trump-backed Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore fresh in everyone's minds, the president's ability to influence state-level Republican politics could conceivably be at its low point.

Amending the U.S. Constitution is no easier. Trump's proposed libel law changes ― which are still vague and undefined, beyond the general goal of making it harder for the press to write negative stories about him ― would have to pass a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress. But that would just officially propose the amendment, which would need to secure the approval of three-fourths of the state legislatures across the country to be ratified — that currently works out to 38 states.

In short, although the GOP achieved a considerably dominant position in state governments throughout the Obama years, it simply doesn't have the numbers necessary to slam through a constitutional amendment without bipartisan cooperation. And suffice to say, the Democratic Party is unlikely to look fondly on a Trump-led effort to change the First Amendment.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As mentioned earlier, it's unclear what changes Trump would even like to see to the libel laws, although it seems a safe bet to assume he might want to make it easier for him to sue media outlets for libel. One pretty consistent element of American libel law is that it's much harder for a public figure like the president to successfully mount a case than for a private citizen who lives outside the public eye.

Trump has frequently threatened lawsuits against private citizens and media companies alike that have never come to fruition. In the final weeks of his presidential campaign, he both threatened to sue The New York Times for reporting sexual assault allegations against him (allegations he has vehemently denied), and threatened to sue his many accusers, whom he called "horrible liars."

None of those threatened suits ended up happening, and in fact, Trump is presently himself being sued for defamation by one of his accusers, Summer Zervos. The White House has maintained the suit is without merit, and has tried (and so far failed) to have the case thrown out of court.