Donald Trump’s tweets have always been fabulously chaotic or appallingly offensive in their unpredictability – even when you know he’s trying to distract you from something, you’re honestly never sure what he’s going to say next. This week, though, as the Mueller investigation intensified, the President might well have painted himself into a Twitter corner.
Back in the summer – what seems a political lifetime ago – open government advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation looked at the potential pitfalls around the issue of Twitter transparency for the official record and for verifying that Tweets sent from the President’s account are actually written by him. It said: “As with any tweet by @POTUS, the public should be able to know who wrote a @realDonaldTrump tweet. Someday, perhaps Twitter or Facebook will work with a White House to show tweets or updates written by a president differently, adding a Verified layer that acts as a watermark or a simple annotation in the metadata that changes how the text is displayed.”
This weekend, those technical arguments surrounding veracity – which would be of huge importance in a ‘conventional’ presidency as a central tenet in the trust relationship between politicians and citizens – were brought to the fore after some legal observers believed the President appeared to incriminate himself via this tweet:
I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2017
In it, the President seemed to say that he knew Gen Mike Flynn had lied to the FBI at the time of his dismissal, after previously saying only that Flynn had been fired for lying to the Vice-President. As damage limitation mode seemed to take hold at the White House, skepticism greeted the statement by Trump’s lawyer John Dowd – apparently volunteering to throw himself under the oncoming bus – that he had drafted the tweet and sent the message to Trump’s “social media director” Dan Scavino. But things then took a fascinating turn with what the Washington Post called “a bold new legal defense” as the same lawyer sought to excuse the tweet by arguing that the President by virtue of his position “cannot obstruct justice”. It set off a wide-ranging legal debate while inevitably calling to mind Richard Nixon’s famous statement to David Frost about Watergate…
David Frum in The Atlantic demolishes the idea that a President is above the law. He writes:
The Trump presidency is leading this country in directions utterly inconsistent with any concept of the rule of law. But it is not only Donald Trump personally and individually who is doing the leading. Around and often ahead of him are many others, in politics and media, who empower him by breaking long established institutions and norms of government.
The legal and practical issues raised about who might have access to the Trump Twitter account were then accompanied by yet another presidential pre-dawn stream in which the President’s persona took aim at Hillary Clinton, the FBI and its former boss James Comey – who recently abandoned his Twitter alias Reinhold Neibur to tweet under his own name – leading Maggie Haberman of the New York Times to tell CNN: “Something is unleashed with him [Trump] lately… I think the last couple of day’s tweets have been markedly accelerated in terms of seeming a little unmoored.”
This furore of confusion and chin-scratching came at the end of a week where Trump’s re-tweeting of videos circulated by far-right group Britain First led to what The Guardian called “one of the worst diplomatic ruptures with the UK since British troops torched the White House in 1814” during which the President turned his ire on some poor woman who happened to share the same name as Britain’s Prime Minister.
As well as the practical fallout from the latest “diplomacy by tweet” the episode raised issues around why Twitter didn’t delete the videos in question and eventually led to Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling the White House press corps that it didn’t matter whether or not the videos were genuine and also – tellingly – that Trump “doesn’t verify” information he re-tweets.
Issie Lapowski wrote in Wired on ‘Trump and the risks of digital hate’: “History indicates that dangerous rhetoric tends to sound cautionary at the outset, ringing the alarm against what the people in power deem to be a serious threat. The people who spread it… think they’re ‘out to save the world. Their idea is to rid the world of a terrible evil.’”
As former KKK leader David Duke praised Trump’s re-tweeting, Britain First was thanking the President for all its new followers. And despite MP Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissing Twitter as a “fundamentally trivial medium” the UK parliament soon had an issue of its own to deal with after fellow MP Nadine Dorries’ tweet led to questions about MPs’ online vulnerability, infosec policies and the threat of cyber-attack.
But in terms of the role of Twitter as a political strategic tool, President Trump remains the exemplar, the groundbreaker, the pioneer of using the medium to simultaneously dictate and debase the popular discourse. The Wall Street Journal even speculated that the President’s tweets could hamper jury selection in trials resulting from the Mueller probe.
If it’s the case that the President’s behavior is becoming more erratic as the Russia investigation intensifies, monitoring his Twitter feed is likely the most obvious place to discern that, and also for an indication of what he might be reacting to ‘in the moment’. Philip Bump at the Washington Post compiled a statistical analysis of when Trump was likely watching Fox News based on his tweets directly related to its broadcast content.
Meanwhile, the news cycle continues to spin, and while we’ve been chattering about Flynn and the President’s possible legal jeopardy or otherwise, here are some of the stories – just in the past few days – that maybe didn’t get the sort of discussion they deserved:
- The GOP pushed through a tax bill that looks set to exacerbate economic inequality.
- The President speculated that a government shutdown “might be good for him”.
- The debate over Net Neutrality.
- A further escalation of tensions with North Korea.
- Whether or not the Secretary of State was on his way out.
- Whether or not a US-built Saudi missile defense system actually worked.
- The rolling back of protected lands in Utah.
- The upcoming Senate election in Alabama, where the President has gone all in on endorsing Roy Moore in the Dec 12 contest; even as the controversy surrounding the allegations against Moore, have led to a resurfacing of the President’s own past.
Rather than the Russia probe, meanwhile, Trump’s supporters may have been more pre-occupied with the verdict in the Kate Steinle case, a focus for the Trump campaign’s immigration position during the election.
Are we at a point where the news simply ‘moves on’ faster than we can embrace it and there’s little incentive to go back and re-visit it? Or, on the contrary, is it possible it’s more beneficial than ever to draw the threads together, even if those threads are as ephemeral as a 140-character barb. The former director of the Obama campaign’s rapid response team thinks Twitter could prove the undoing of the Trump presidency. It’s doubtful the President sees it that way, even if those close to him might be inclined to agree.
You sir, are no Jed Bartlet
Finally, a new book, out today (Tuesday), ‘Let Trump Be Trump’ by former aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, borrows a famous line from The West Wing – and there’s pretty much where any similarity ends. The book offers an Inside look at last year’s winning campaign, touching on everything from the candidate’s “screaming fits” to his diet.
The authors write: “Sooner or later, everybody who works for Donald Trump will see a side of him that makes you wonder why you took a job with him in the first place.”
Also published on Medium.