If Charles Dickens had witnessed what happened this past week at the White House, he might very well have repeated his A Tale of Two Cities refrain, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Something astounding happened Tuesday at the White House. And it was good for the American people.
Something astounding happened Wednesday at the White House. And it was bad for the American people.
On Tuesday, President Trump hosted a meeting with a bipartisan Congressional delegation to negotiate a legislative solution to the conundrum over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), affecting the 800,000 so-called “dreamers” who entered the U.S. illegally as children but now, in many cases, are adults making positive contributions to society.
The president decided last summer to end an Obama administration policy allowing the dreamers to stay in the U.S. Now Congress faces an early March deadline to come up with a legislative solution or the dreamers may have to leave the only country many of them have ever known as home.
A federal appeals court Tuesday ruled against Mr. Trump’s DACA decision, but he and Democratic congressional leaders say they still want a legislative solution as quickly as possible.
What was remarkable about the White House meeting is that the news media were allowed to stay in the room – for 55 minutes. Watch the full video here. The American people were actually allowed to see, as NBC News correspondent Hallie Jackson put it, “the sausage getting made.” It was a fascinating glimpse of what usually happens behind closed doors in Washington. The president even answered several questions from reporters before they were finally escorted from the room.
But harbor no illusions about this nearly unprecedented display of transparency. It likely didn’t occur because the president magnanimously thought the American people deserved to be in that room for nearly an hour. Rather, many believe it happened because the president wanted to disprove growing speculation about his mental fitness following this month’s release of the explosive Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
As CNN’s Jake Tapper put it:
After a week in which new questions have been raised about the president's fitness and stability prompted by that tell-all book Fire and Fury, with which the president and the White House cooperated, if you're wondering if pushing aside those concerns was as least partly the point of these on-camera negotiations for the bill of love, you're not being cynical, you're being correct...
Or, as The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Phillip Rucker wrote:
With his afternoon immigration meeting with lawmakers — into which he invited the press corps to watch for nearly an hour — Trump sought to definitively answer the question that has been nagging at him for the past week: Is the 71-year-old mentally fit to be commander in chief?
Then, on Wednesday, at his first cabinet meeting of the year, the president riffed on a repeated refrain from his campaign playbook, threatening to change laws to make it easier for people to sue news organizations, stating, “Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness.”
This is remarkable because it is the first time the White House has signaled it is reviewing ways to make it easier to sue journalists who report stories it doesn’t like since last April, when then-chief of staff Reince Priebus indicated there might be such a review.
The president’s pronouncement Wednesday came a week after he bucked decades of First Amendment case law by attempting to halt publication of Fire and Fury before it went on sale, a stab at clearly unconstitutional prior restraint. And it came one day after one of his personal attorneys, Michael Cohen, sued BuzzFeed for defamation because it published the notorious Trump “dossier” that alleged possible ties between the Russian government and the 2016 Trump campaign.
In practical terms, there is very little the president or his administration can do to toughen libel laws. First of all, there is no federal libel law. Second, there’s the matter of a certain landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, New York Times vs. Sullivan, which states, in part:
The First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity).
Each of the 50 states has its own libel law. But, as famed First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams told CNN’s Brian Stelter this week, the president’s “definition of what he wants to deal with is precisely what the law currently allows you to deal with." Still, warns Abrams, the 2003 recipient of RTDNF’s First Amendment Leadership Award, the president’s threats should be taken seriously.
This is a president, after all, who still calls responsible journalism he doesn’t like “fake news,” and still refers to journalists as the “enemy of the American people.”
This is a president who runs an administration that is currently reviewing Obama era policies that made it difficult for federal law enforcement officers to compel reporters to reveal confidential sources in illegal leak investigations; his attorney general has repeatedly refused to offer assurances that journalists won’t be targeted.
And this is a president who leads a nation where, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, at least 39 journalists were physically attacked in 2017 and at least 32 physically assaulted merely for fulfilling their duty to serve the public by seeking and reporting the truth.
RTDNA and its nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force offer sincere thanks to President Trump for allowing the public into the room on Tuesday for his DACA negotiations with members of Congress.
But we respectfully insist, Mr. President, that you abandon your foolhardy effort to toughen libel laws.
And we respectfully insist that you stop your attacks on responsible journalism, verbal assaults that have enabled some in your political and ideological base to attack reporters and photojournalists, too often in physical ways.
There would be no “best of times” in a United States of America without press freedom. Sadly, there would only be the “worst of times.”