Ever since he first declared his candidacy for president, Donald Trump and Twitter have been joined at the hip. Throughout the campaign, the social network provided a window into Trump’s thoughts, and it has continued to do so now that he is the commander-in-chief.
It’s an unprecedented real-time look at what he is thinking. And as anyone who has followed the coverage of the Trump administration knows, what the president is thinking often falls into the category of knee-jerk criticism of the “failing media” or of specific Democratic viewpoints—or of those who have a problem with his policies.
There’s also a whole separate category of tweets that involve factual inaccuracies, unproven statements, and boasts of various kinds, which often trigger a massive response by traditional media outlets, even if the facts being alleged are of minor importance.
Is this part of a clever strategy of distraction, as some suggest? Or is it simply Trump speaking his mind after watching a TV program or reading something in the news while he sits alone in the White House residence? There’s plenty of evidence for the latter view, including meticulously documented examples of Trump tweets that appear to have been triggered by specific segments on Fox News (FOX) and other conservative TV shows.
In that sense, the president is no different than many non-famous Twitter (TWTR) users, who like to tweet about what they are watching on television in real-time. It’s just that Trump’s thoughts theoretically have much more dramatic consequences because he is the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world.
A recent Politico feature looked at how the various handlers and communications staff try to manage the president’s media consumption in order to control what he is tweeting to the point where they placed favorable stories in publications that have been friendlier to the campaign, like Breitbart News, in order to counteract something they thought might anger him.
“He saw there was activity, so he didn’t feel like he had to respond,” a former campaign official told the online magazine. “He sends out these tweets when he feels like people aren’t responding enough for him.”
What’s fascinating is the picture this paints of how the president’s media consumption habits affect his behavior, and how that is expressed through Twitter. Trump says he likes Twitter because it allows him to go direct to his audience, and that is true. But the impact of him doing this is just as often negative rather than positive.
That’s why his handlers try to manage his consumption, presumably, because they are afraid that he will damage his credibility or attack people unnecessarily, as he did during the campaign when he went after Khizr Khan, whose son died while fighting for the U.S. in Iraq.
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Since then, we’ve seen tweets that antagonized the Chinese government, or went after companies like Boeing and Toyota — which has had a direct impact on those stocks. We’ve seen tweets about the anti-immigration order in which Trump himself called it a ban, contradicting his staff who repeatedly said it wasn’t a ban.
And of course, we’ve seen tweets that made unsubstantiated claims about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, and phone calls to officials who retweeted the opposite. We’ve heard reports about how angry Trump gets when his tweets aren’t given the respect he thinks they deserve, and how his recent press conference was an attempt to redress that perceived imbalance.
The New York Times reported earlier this month:
The news conference, they said, was Mr. Trump’s best effort at spitting the bit out of his mouth and escaping the bridle of the West Wing, where he views his only way to communicate his side of any argument is his 140-character limited Twitter feed.
Comparisons are often made between what Trump does with Twitter and what John F. Kennedy did with television, or what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did with radio when that technology was in its infancy. But that’s a little like comparing a bicycle ride with a moonshot.
The reality is that Trump’s Twitter use provides a real-time glimpse into his motivation and perspective on a host of different issues, as skewed as it might be. And it doesn’t come once a week in a Sunday radio address, but dozens of times a day, at all hours of the day and night, unmediated by anything other than anxious staffers.
As irritating and infuriating as those glimpses might be (and not just for journalists, but for Trump’s own staff, who monitor his tweets as though their lives depended on it), they give us an unprecedented view of what is—or isn’t—on the president’s mind.
Much of what former president Richard Nixon thought about the media, or black people, or a hundred other subjects didn’t become obvious until years after he left the White House and tapes were released of him speaking candidly. Can you imagine what Nixon on Twitter would have been like? Or Ronald Reagan? Or Lyndon Johnson?
With Trump and Twitter, we get those glimpses repeatedly, probably far more often than we might like, and they are probably more revealing than even he intends them to be. And that is not a great thing if you think the presidency should be calm and restrained and above the fray.
But if you are a political or media junkie, it is like Christmas every day.
If the president is unhinged or wrong on some crucial aspect of foreign policy, isn’t it better to find out about that directly from the horse’s mouth as those thoughts occur to him? That’s the kind of perspective we have on the White House now, for better or worse.