One of the things that makes Donald J. Trump an unprecedented figure in American politics is his frequent use of social media — specifically, Twitter — to make personal pronouncements on matters large and small. In general, those pronouncements feel undisciplined and half-baked. That was true even before he became president of the United States, and it is even more remarkable now that those fingers that tap out sloppy and provocative 140-character tweets have enormous real-life power. His Twitter habits certainly give him even more command over the news cycle than presidents already possess: A Trump tweetstorm is now the epitome of must-see social media.
But after a fresh tweetstorm in which the president, among other things, pointedly uses the latest London terrorist attacks as grounds for an angry retrospective attack on the courts and even his own Justice Department for “watering down” his original travel ban, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway went on the Today and attacked “[t]his obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what of he does as president.” Conway was, of course, trying to displace discussion of Trump’s tweets related to the London attacks (which included what might technically be described as lies about London’s mayor) with the calmer official statements of solidarity coming out of other administration outlets. But still, it was a shocking assertion — and one worth challenging.
For one thing, Conway probably should not contrast her boss’s statements on Twitter to presidential actions, given his light collection of actual accomplishments and his administration’s often internally conflicting and/or incoherent statements of policy and intention. Are we to ignore what the president himself says in favor of what Sean Spicer says? I don’t think so.
And let’s be clear about what Twitter is and is not: It’s a medium, not some different language. As the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman said — on Twitter — yesterday:
Trump’s tweets are no less authoritative than Trump’s comments in a press availability or a speech. This morning’s tweetstorm, moreover, included actual news. As my colleague Eric Levitz pointed out, the president’s actual intentions in promoting his travel ban are at the center of the litigation currently holding it up — which the administration (i.e., those “politically correct” DOJ lawyers Trump excoriates in one tweet) is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve. So by letting the whole world know he thinks his original, religion-specific executive order reflected what he wants and the country needs, Trump’s tweets will almost certainly supply new evidence to his opponents in court. And indeed, a certain very prominent Republican lawyer thinks so, too:
Yes, that’s George Conway, Kellyanne’s husband.
But the most important validator of the significance of the 45th president’s tweets is the 45th president:
If his tweets are providing the “real story,” news media ought to cover them, right?
The more this particular argument goes on, the clearer it becomes that Team Trump wants to use Twitter to feed red meat to Trump’s base, preferably without anyone else — especially the media his tweets so often excoriate — paying much attention. That is and ought to be impossible, particularly now that the man is in office. If he doesn’t want media coverage of tweets, then he needs to find a way to communicate more discreetly to the faithful.