The first time I walked through the West Wing after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I was confronted with a large photo of the new president mounted on the wall in a stairwell. The image captures him peering out the window of a plane. His lips are pursed and parted, revealing his teeth. He seems to be mid-conversation, maybe mid-word. With his right hand, he holds an Android phone to his ear. The device looks enormous.
I remember stopping in my tracks and laughing out loud. When I was in the first grade, my art teacher, Mrs. Smith, asked the class to draw the Mona Lisa and to include in her hands something from the modern world. I drew her holding a cell phone. So did half the class. I thought the Trump photo, positioned as it was in this gilded, historic place, looked sort of like that. Silly and weird. A contradiction, somehow. Plus, it was funny for more obvious reasons. There were reports that Trump had refused to give up his personal cell phone, which posed a security risk because it was vulnerable to hacking. And years before that, Trump was notorious for hanging onto the outdated technology of the flip phone because, as McKay Coppins once wrote, he liked that the device curved in such a way that the speaker got close to his mouth. But more generally, the image was so funny because Trump’s reliance on his phone was so central to what made him the bizarre politician and communicator he’d become.
Before the presidency was the violent insurrection on the United States Capitol, the tweets were the presidency. Stupid, grammatically incoherent, racist, false, mean, petty, hilarious. His online persona was the same as his private self.
Trump made most decisions only after surveying a wide network of informal advisers he reached by phone, often late at night or early in the morning, or in the long stretches of his day in which he was doing fuck-all, or what would formally become known later as “executive time.” And he made policy and played politics and offered commentary and threatened war by typing out tweets and launching them into the ether. Sometimes the tweets were sent by his aides, like Dan Scavino, his social-media director. But even that process was usually just dictation, with Trump barking aloud exactly what he wanted Scavino to type, even down to the specific and often incorrect punctuation and capitalization of words. During his early days on Twitter, in 2011, Trump relied on an aide to tweet for him. Justin McConney, a former Trump Organization employee, once told me how he’d print out Trump’s mentions to show him in analog what was happening online, and Trump would manually select what to respond to. But by 2012, when he replaced the flip phone with an Android, Trump began tweeting himself.
Even the tweets that seemed like they had to have been sent in a fit of rage with no forethought whatsoever sometimes were actually the result of careful planning and workshopping with advisers. For instance, when Trump accused Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough of murdering his constituent services director while serving in Congress, a senior member of the White House staff told me they were upset with the president not over what he said, but that he’d fucked up the delivery. The version of the tweet he’d worked on with staff had been much funnier, according to the staffer.
Upon Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Trump’s account, and other social-media platforms doing the same, I’ve seen a lot of commentary about the new uselessness of his phone. “cannot even imagine how mad he is rn,” joked the New York Times’ Mike Isaac, “my mans phone is a paperweight.”
And it’s kind of true. He might use it to call into Fox & Friends, or to otherwise contact the outside world from within the bunker of the White House, sure. (I have an outstanding interview request, if anyone from the White House who hasn’t yet resigned is reading this.) And while Melania Trump is a prolific emoji-user who messages her friends on the encrypted app Signal, and his advisers — most infamously Rudy Giuliani — have digital communication habits so chaotic and disastrous that they’re now the stuff of legend, Trump is only known to send texts on “very” rare occasions, and to do so via iMessage, according to current and former officials. When his daughter Ivanka posted a selfie with him last week, on the way to the Georgia rally where he campaigned for two Republican candidates who then lost, she smiled and looked at the camera. Trump, in the background, stared down at his phone, his face set aglow from the screen.
Of course, none of this matters now. Five people are dead after the violence that Trump incited. With 11 days left in his presidency, Trump faces a historic second impeachment, calls for his removal through the 25th Amendment, and the threat of prosecution the second he steps out of his cocoon of executive privilege and back into the world that he distorted for four years.
Still, I’m not used to this eerie silence from the most chatty Oval Office inhabitant in modern American history. The comedian John Mulaney once famously compared the Trump presidency to “a horse loose in a hospital” and said, accurately, “the creepiest days are when you don’t hear from the horse at all.”
My lasting image of President Trump is of a guy shitposting his way through a single term in office, one finger on the nuclear button, the others glued to his phone.