Donald Trump, Twitterer-in-Chief?
Already this month, Donald Trump has used Twitter to dangle potential Cabinet nominations and changes in foreign policy, criticize the Boeing Co., lash out at a union leader, and lambaste Vanity Fair over a review that trashed his Trump Tower restaurant. The president-elect has also taken to his favorite social media platform to scoff at reports of Russian hacking, dismiss questions about conflicts of interest regarding his businesses, and to tout his tax proposals. He has blasted “Saturday Night Live” in tweets for poking fun at – you guessed it -- his use of Twitter.
So far, his communication habits as president-elect are indistinguishable from his campaign trail approach, and few Trumpologists anticipate that the heightened scrutiny and security of the Oval Office will suppress his compulsion for pre-dawn Twitter raids. The difference is that, as the looming leader of the free world, every utterance is more consequential than it was as a candidate.
An incoming president who has eschewed the traditional press conferences employed by his predecessors during their transitions raises the question of whether he will govern by Twitter after he takes the oath of office. Social media has become something of a digital bully pulpit for Trump. And as his team deliberates how to handle communication with a press corps it considers hostile, Twitter bolsters Trump’s ability to control his message.
New presidents often change, and sometimes revolutionize, White House communications, adapting protocols to their own styles and changing technology. But historians and communications experts note that Trump’s style is more unfiltered.
Trump’s use of Twitter “is a proxy for not having a press conference,” says Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, based at Harvard University. “The media is the primary audience of most of his tweets,” she added. “It’s a vehicle where the media doesn’t get to question him but he gets to drive the coverage, in a sense. The tweeting is part of a broader effort to manage the press.”
Most Americans are not active Twitter users. For Trump, tweets are essentially press releases, disseminated through the media in a way that seemingly avoids the middleman. “If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to ‘tweet,’” Trump wrote earlier this month. “Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!”
It is not clear how Trump will go about the process of transitioning his personal social media accounts. On January 20, he’ll assume the official POTUS handle and its 12 million followers, and President Obama’s tweets will be cleared from the account and archived, along with all other social media properties. (Trump’s own Twitter account has over 17 million followers.)
The POTUS application might not be as readily available to his own finger tips. The president’s mobile device is stripped so bare to comply with security standards that Obama once compared it to a “3-year-old’s play phone.” But anything sent from the official social media accounts will carry the weight of the office.
“This is a tool people are watching in an anxious way, because they understand every presidential statement, every presidential act has significance and potential consequence,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. Zelizer notes the way in which Trump uses Twitter and social media with his business/television producer mind, to heighten the drama around an issue or event, thus compelling the audience to tune in for what comes next. “We are watching,” he says, “[but] do the theatrics start to cause policy problems that are not simply controversial but really have detrimental effects?”
In an interview with “60 Minutes” days after winning the election, Trump said his Twitter use as president would be “more restrained.” Yet when asked about controversial tweets in a recent phone interview with the “Today” show, Trump asserted that he had already been “very restrained” in his Twitter use.
“I talk about important things,” he said. "Frankly, it's a modern form of communication. ... I get it out much faster than a press release. ... I get it out much more honestly than dealing with dishonest reporters because so many reporters are dishonest."
A Gallup poll in September found the public’s view of the media at a new low. Just 32 percent of Americans say they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the media.
Trump could still keep up his personal Twitter account, though it would likely be ripe for security breaches. And it could be difficult to tell between a hacker’s voice and his own. Asked how he will continue with Twitter, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told a post-election conference at Harvard, “That's going to be up to him, the Secret Service and others who have to help decide those issues.”
“People look at his social media accounts,” she continued, “as a very good platform of which to convey his message."
Barack Obama often went around the traditional press corps, establishing a White House video channel, communicating through various social media platforms, and giving interviews to YouTube stars, including Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns.” But historians and communications strategists note there was always a plan behind the effort, usually to galvanize the public around a certain agenda item or issue.
Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on presidential communications, believes that Twitter itself will prove insufficient to President Trump. “It is not a place where you can explain things,” says Kumar, a Towson University professor and director of the White House Transition Project. “You can only announce. If you’re going to talk about your tax policy you’re going to need a lot more than Twitter. It’s a difference between campaigning and governing. In campaigning, you don't have to explain things in the same depth.”
Trump staffers say the president-elect is aware of the distinction. “He understands the role of president and the role of the White House,” Sean Spicer, who is being considered for the press secretary position, told Fox News when asked how Trump will handle White House communications and the press corps. “That’s a vastly different view than being at a campaign rally that is paid for by the campaign, by his own funds, at a private venue. He has a right to control the access to that.”
While Trump has not adhered to the tradition of past presidents-elect and held press conferences during the transition, he has participated in interviews with mainstream outlets. In addition to the “60 Minutes” and “Today” interviews, Trump sat down with “Fox News Sunday’s” Chris Wallace recently. He also met with the New York Times editorial board and reporters for an on-the-record interview in which he responded to a myriad of questions. He has also conducted public events, hosting several rallies across the country as part of a “thank-you” tour through states that helped him win the presidency. The Trump transition team also holds daily conference calls with reporters.
But Trump himself hasn’t held a press conference since July -- an event in which he invited the Russians, however jokingly, to uncover Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. Over the past several days, he claimed on Twitter that the Obama administration did not disclose the Russian cyberattacks until now, even though the president cited the intelligence information over the summer.
After postponing a press conference last week intended to explain how he would disengage himself from his business interests as president -- the transition team said it would need more time to iron out the complex details -- Trump took to Twitter to argue the media was making the issue more complicated than it is.
The transition team says Trump will hold a press conference to address how he will hand over his business next month, but has not revealed any details. The lack of press conferences “get to the fundamental question of accountability,” says the Shorenstein Center’s Nicco Mele. “What responsibilities does the president of the United States have to communicate with the public?”
The Trump camp has not elaborated on how it views that question. Asked on a conference call last week about Trump’s tweets regarding Russia and the intelligence community, spokesman Jason Miller said, “I will let the tweets speak for themselves.”
While Trump’s communication style gives him unfiltered access to the public, even some of his supporters express concerns. At a focus group of Trump voters last week in Cleveland, one participant said, “I think he needs to stay off Twitter.” Another remarked that Trump would be wise to “take the high road.”
A recent Marist Poll found 66 percent of Americans consider Trump’s tweets to be “reckless and distracting,” while 21 percent found them effective and informative. The responses weren’t entirely partisan: While 90 percent of Democrats view his Twitter style negatively, so do 67 percent of independents and 43 percent of Republicans.
Those who have been on the receiving end of Trump’s Twitter habit don’t relish the consequences. United Steelworkers Local 1999 President Chuck Jones, who represents employees at the once-imperiled Carrier plant in Indianapolis, told The Washington Post he received an onslaught of calls after Trump criticized him on Twitter by name. Jones himself had been critical of Trump’s negotiation with the manufacture to keep jobs in Indianapolis.
But many Trump allies have encouraged the president-elect to continue his non-traditional media efforts.
“The Trump administration should use technology to reach the public with fewer or no middlemen. Why continue to advantage an incumbent press corps that hates the incoming president and has no intention of giving him a fair shot?” Newt Gingrich wrote in an editorial for National Interest. “White House and agency spokesmen could use technology like Google Hangouts to hold video press conferences where local correspondents from around the country and independent media are on an equal footing with the Beltway reporters. The president and senior officials could address issues of importance to the public in video distributed by Facebook Live and YouTube.”
Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, said the communications team is re-evaluating the daily briefings and communications strategies. “There’s a lot of different ways that things can be done,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “The point of all of this conversation is that the traditions, while some of them are great, I think it’s time to revisit a lot of these things that have been done in the White House, and I can assure you that change is going to happen.”