NBC News ponders whether Obama could sue Trump for libel

I hear that standup comedian and marijuana aficionado Doug Benson has a new television show similar to The People’s Court where he decides small claims cases while under the influence. Perhaps he could tackle this one?

It’s going to be a while yet before we know all the details of possible wiretapping at Trump Tower, assuming we ever find out at all. That hasn’t slowed down NBC News in their insistence that a lack of evidence up front means that no evidence exists and the President’s assertions on twitter over the weekend amount to some sort of baseless attack on his predecessor. If so, could this rise to the level of slander or libel in a court of law? They report, you decide.

President Donald Trump’s newest pivot might be his way to divert attention from his own Russia troubles by leveling a Watergate-level conspiracy allegation at former President Barack Obama.

But this latest assertion that Obama ordered illegal surveillance of Trump Tower during the 2016 election — tweeted without evidence — could build and get the president into some legal hot water.

Although the law provides a great deal of leeway for political speech, that protection is not all encompassing. And because of the way Trump has leveled unsubstantiated accusations at Obama, he may have libeled his predecessor.

On strictly legal grounds this sounds like something of a tough sell. As NBC is generous enough to mention, public figures have a much tougher slog ahead of them if they wish to bring a libel suit against someone when compared to your average private citizen. Running for public office (particularly the presidency) sets you up as a subject of both criticism and praise in the public square. Also, in order to prevail in such a hypothetical case, Barack Obama would have to be able to show that President Trump’s assertions were not only false, but made with the specific intent of damaging Obama’s reputation.

That could be a rough sell in any courtroom no matter who the plaintiff and the defendant are. It requires a bit of mind-reading on the part of the court and the ability to sidestep around a claim by the White House that the allegation was simply, “something I heard.” Of course if it turns out that there actually was a wiretap in place or at least a request put in to have one installed, the whole idea of libel goes out the window.

This fanciful story from NBC looks far more like a way to kill some time and draw a few clicks than any type of actual news, but it also leaves another question essentially unanswered. Let’s put on our tinfoil hats for a moment and assume that this is somehow in the realm of possibility. Is this the sort of thing that former President Obama would actually want to get into? How petty would that look? Both men have some seriously oversized egos (which is pretty much a requirement to run for that job) and Trump himself is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to any perceived slights. But Barack Obama is well known for all the work he’s put into safeguarding his legacy and getting into this sort of a food fight with his successor seems like just about the last thing he’d want to do.

So why did NBC news decide to run with this? It unfortunately requires yet more mind-reading on our part, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if this wasn’t just a sidebar effort on the part of the network to reinforce the notion that the allegations are ridiculous. After all, any day you can run a story which discredits the current White House is a pretty good day in the news game.