What would happen if Obama sued Trump for libel?

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A year ago, a Republican candidate for president declared, “One of the things I’m going to do if I win is to open up our libel laws,” so that he could sue those who said “purposely negative and horrible and false” things about him and allow him to sue “and win lots of money.”

He'd change the law so that if somebody wrote something that was “a total disgrace...we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”

Thanks to Geoffrey Stone, a prominent law professor at the University of Chicago, for bringing this up amid Donald Trump tweeting that Barack Obama, a onetime Stone colleague at the law school, wiretapped his office in New York. And, it appears, without a shred of evidence.

Related Training: Poynter Ethics, Plagiarism and Copyright Certificate

So what would Trump's defense be if Obama would sue under libel law or the wondrous expansion that candidate Trump promised? "I heard Mark Levin say it," or, "I read it in Breitbart!?"

Writing in The Chicago Sun-Times, Stone correctly notes, "At the time Trump made this statement, people who knew anything at all about the law of libel were stunned. Could he really be that ignorant? Well, yes. Trump’s assumption was that those who write 'purposely negative and horrible and false' things about others are 'totally protected' from liability."

That's utter baloney.

Consider how Trump, with nary a scintilla of ambiguity, alleges that Obama committed a criminal act. If utter baloney, too, "Trump committed the quintessential libel."

Or, as Stone concisely underscored in an email exchange last night, the "I read it in Breitbart" defense would fall short. "Reckless disregard" for the truth, he said.

What might happen if Obama sued? Stone thinks he could win lots and lots of money from Trump. "Indeed, there seems no doubt that Trump’s statement was false, defamatory, and at the very least made with reckless disregard for the truth. Such a lawsuit would be amusing and entertaining beyond belief."

"Of course, this will not happen. Barack Obama is not that kind of 'guy.' He is a person of integrity, calm, and self-restraint. So, perhaps sadly, we will be spared the drama of such litigation. But this is just one more illustration of why the person currently in the White House should not be there."

Snap declines, again

"Shares of Snap Inc. declined a second day, bringing the loss from Friday’s high to more than 27 percent, amid signs of robust interest among short sellers." (Bloomberg)

A spasm of Tillerson transparency

When it comes to making himself accessible to the press, Rex Tillerson has been acting more like the CEO of ExxonMobil (old job) than Secretary of State (new job). And reporters and Washington editors are miffed at his plan to shaft the press by not accommodating them on an upcoming Asia trek as he claims he's got to use a smaller government plane than normal.

Given the giant government fleet, that's B.S. But it will make attempts by the press to cover him by flying commercial a logistical quandary, perhaps impossibility, unless you have reporters stationed in advance at every stop along the way.

But Tuesday at least brought the department's first on-camera briefing under the new regime (a daily briefing is a tradition Tillerson's underlings may now break). And Mark Toner, acting spokesman and a career Foreign Service officer who's worked as a public information officer in West Africa and Eastern Europe, was capable and genial, if not forthcoming on all matters.

"I'm glad we're back up at the podium," he said. "Obviously I respect what this briefing is about and what it accomplishes. Of course, I appreciate the patience of all of you over the past month or so as this new administration got its sea legs...we do take this very seriously, I assure you."

What ensued included some decorous dueling over various policy issues, like Trump's immigration order and seemingly dramatic cuts proposed in the department budget. Toner promised another briefing Wednesday and a telephone one Thursday.

But we shall see if tradition prevails. You could ask Tillerson but, after all, he battled the truth over climate change for so many years. And, now, he'll fly to the Far East unencumbered by us nattering nabobs of negativism, as the convicted former Vice President Spiro Agnew called the press (in words actually written by speechwriter William Safire, later the clout-heavy New York Times op-ed columnist).

Remember Megyn Kelly?

Reviewing Kelly's book in The New York Review of Books, Slate's' Jacob Weisberg writes, "By this year's election cycle, Kelly had emerged as the face of the (Fox News) network's willingness to intermittently engage in journalism." (New York Review)

He concludes, "Kelly's departure was inevitable. Had she rented her contract at Fox News, she would now be in an untenable position. In jumping to NBC, she escaped the Murdoch-Trump axis in the nick of time, with her reputation intact. Kelly deserves credit, perhaps for using Fox News more than it used her. One only wishes she had settled for more forthrightness about what really goes on there."

Grass not always greener on the other side

As the media focuses on either a) Trump's claims of wiretapping or b) the congressional push to ditch Obamacare, observers of the latter might check out the London Review of Books' creatively crafted assessment of the once revered National Health Service in England.

"Management consultant initiatives and stealth privatisations have for years set about the NHS like termites, nibbling away at the beams and struts of a once magnificent structure. But the whole edifice is now on the brink of collapse."

Autopsy of a self-flagellation

"In the immediate aftermath of the wrong best-picture winner being announced on the evening of Feb. 26, the leaders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disagreed about how to respond to the biggest debacle in Oscar history, according to sources with knowledge of the internal discussions." (Variety)

"CEO Dawn Hudson favored the Academy issuing a statement of apology sooner rather than later, while president Cheryl Boone Isaacs suggested that the organization lay low until determining exactly what went wrong."

Axios and Woody Allen's "Bananas"

Axios, the new Jim VandeHei-Mike Allen operation, reports that after a Republican meeting last night on their bill to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, Rep. Mo Brooks declared, "Right now the Speaker of the House does not have the votes to pass this bill unless he's got substantial Democratic support."

Axios then informs, "What this means: It means what Mo says. House Speaker Paul Ryan has a Republican Obamacare bill that's not backed by enough Republicans to pass the House."

This reminds of the scene in "Bananas" where Woody Allen's Fielding Mellish gets off a plane in the U.S. disguised as the President of the fictional republic of San Marcos and speaks in English with an interpreter interpreting in heavily accented English.

"The interpreter: [in English] I am Mr. Hernandez, the official interpreter!"

"Senator: Welcome to the United States."

"The interpreter: [in English to Fielding] 'Welcome to the United States.'"

"Fielding Mellish: [in English] 'Thank you!'"

"The interpreter: [to the Senator] 'Thank you!'"

Yes, Ryan needs votes. He needs votes. Axios, thank you!

Headline of day

"The CIA’s no good, very bad, totally awful Tuesday." (Lawfare)

Yes, it was about the stunning WikiLeaks dump of CIA documents. But what did it really mean?

"The story here isn’t that the CIA hacks people," writes Lawfare's Nicholas Weaver of the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California. "Of course they do; taxpayers would be right to be annoyed if that weren’t the case."

Not produced at the Iowa Writers' Workshop

It's the formidable Glenn Thrush-Maggie Haberman duo's New York Times news lede that, fitting for the age, could have doubled as a pithy tweet: "WASHINGTON — President Trump has no regrets. His staff has no defense."

Their second graph could have sufficed, too: "After weeks of assailing reporters and critics in diligent defense of their boss, Mr. Trump’s team has been uncharacteristically muted this week when pressed about his explosive — and so far proof-free — Twitter posts on Saturday accusing President Barack Obama of tapping phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign." (The New York Times)

Morning babble

CNN's "New Day" wondered if Trump knows Obamacare well enough, and has the energy, to rally Republican votes, including those in the Senate wondering about "throwing Medicaid expansion overboard," as pundit Errol Louis put it. Pundit Matt Lewis said he'd never seen a legislative rollout as bad.

"Fox & Friends," also underscored GOP chagrin over planned subsidies and lack of tort reform, as Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade conceded. They did show clips of GOP initial splinters but generally spun all that as a window onto a newly healthy and diverse party. Ainsley Earhardt, per usual, took the total White House line, blabbing about some three-stage process and the need to take a half a loaf now.

NBC's "Morning Joe" was still heavy on the wiretapping charges and a Trump lack of credibility — at least for the press. Joe Scarborough cited a New York Post column by John Podhoretz, a harsh Trump critic from the right, who underscores how Trump voters (who may not consume all this stuff "on a minute-to-minute or hour-to-hour basis") are experiencing news events in a manner entirely different from the way the overwhelming majority of Americans experience them.

Berman's exit and ESPN ethics

Sports Illustrated suggests that Sam Ponder might supplant Chris Berman as ESPN's chief NFL show host. She's also married to an NFL player.

"As for those wondering about the conflict of having a host married to an active player in the league (Christian Ponder is an unrestricted NFL free agent who played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers last season), ESPN brass long ago stopped pretending they care about such things (e.g. Jon Gruden announcing Jay Gruden’s games and Mary Joe Fernandez interviewing Roger Federer, whose agent is Fernandez’s husband)." (Sports Illustrated)

And, of course, the horse was out of the barn long ago in TV sports departments when it comes to their stars — a few of whom actually consider themselves journalists — raking it in as corporate shills, be it for pizza or golf balls.

If your copy hasn't arrived yet...

"Model Railroader magazine does the math when its 1,000th issue arrives this month. Eighty-three plus 4 really does equal 1,000. It took 83 years and 4 months for Model Railroader magazine, the world’s best-selling monthly magazine about the hobby of model railroading, to reach a milestone of 1,000 published issues."

"The April 2017 issue will celebrate Kalmbach Publishing Co.’s longest-running hobby magazine with commemorative features plus the fresh stories, tips and train layout designs that have made Model Railroader one of the most enduring enthusiast brands ever." (Model Railroader)

It surfaced in 1934 as a Depression-era hobby for Milwaukee commercial printer Al Kalmbach.

Trump-inspired "salon"

For 12 bucks, the Future Journalism Project will try to help you deal with Trump Mania, even Trump Depletion, at a March 15 New York City gathering. The 12 bucks also gets you a free drink.

"Some we’ve spoken to say they’re exhausted, others that they’re overwhelmed, and still others who tell us that though they feel bad about it, they’ve stopped following political news completely."

So news consumers can listen to journalists about "why they cover events the way that they do" and journalists can listen to "people who read, watch and listen to the news you report, and learn how you might make your work more accessible."

Journalists Toure and Elizabeth Spiers are the speakers, though it sounds like they'd do better with two shrinks and a paramedic crew. (FJP)

Magazines continued southerly trek

"12.4 percent fewer magazines were sold on newsstands across the U.S. and Canada in 2016 compared to 2015, according to the latest figures released today by MagNet, corresponding to a 6.9 percent decline in industry-wide newsstand revenue." (Midland Paper)

Hanks, Streep and The New York Times

So we now know there'll be a Hollywood movie about The Washington Post's glory days with Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).

It prompts former Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert to recall this "Capital Comment" column item in the August, 1971 Washingtonian:

"Laurels and more to The New York Times for what may be the story of the decade — the acquisition of the Pentagon papers, the painstaking examination of the documents, the breaking of the story, and the successful court fight to lift the noose of prior government restraint."

"A big boo to the continuing biggest bores in town — the sports pages of the Post and Star. If Shirley Povich writes one more predictable, ill-humored column about (Washington Senators owner) Bob Short, he ought to be sent down to Pittsfield."

His point: Alas, Hanks and Streep didn't decide to do a movie about Abe Rosenthal, the legendary boss of the Times newsroom back then.

Bottom line in the two healthcare bills

We thank a combo of Kaiser Permanente, the Mayo Clinic and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for assessing the healthcare alternatives via a series of declarations and following them with the reality in Obamacare or the Republican bill.

"Permits insurance companies to f*ck Americans over":

Obamacare: YES
Republican alternative: YES

Well, it's probably right but via The Onion.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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