Written by Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Confessore, Karen Yourish, Larry Buchanan and Keith Collins
In the Oval Office, an annoyed President Donald Trump ended an argument he was having with his aides. He reached into a drawer, took out his iPhone and threw it on top of the historic Resolute Desk:
“Do you want me to settle this right now?”
There was no missing Trump’s threat that day in early 2017, the aides recalled. With a tweet, he could fling a directive to the world, and there was nothing they could do about it.
When Trump entered office, Twitter was a political tool that had helped get him elected and a digital howitzer that he relished firing. In the years since, he has fully integrated Twitter into the very fabric of his administration, reshaping the nature of the presidency and presidential power.
After Turkey invaded northern Syria this past month, he crafted his response not only in White House meetings but also in a series of contradictory tweets. This summer, he announced increased tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods, using a tweet to deepen tensions between the two countries. And in March, Trump cast aside more than 50 years of U.S. policy, tweeting his recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights. He openly delighted in the reaction he provoked.
“Boom. I press it,” Trump recalled months later at a White House conference attended by conservative social media personalities, “and, within two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’”
Early on, top aides wanted to restrain the president’s Twitter habit, even considering asking the company to impose a 15-minute delay on Trump’s messages. But 11,390 presidential tweets later, many administration officials and lawmakers embrace his Twitter obsession, flocking to his social media chief with suggestions. Policy meetings are hijacked when Trump gets an idea for a tweet, drawing in cabinet members and others for wordsmithing. And as a president often at war with his own bureaucracy, he deploys Twitter to break through logjams, overrule or humiliate recalcitrant advisers and preempt his staff.
“He needs to tweet like we need to eat,” Kellyanne Conway, his White House counselor, said in an interview.
In a presidency unlike any other, where Trump wakes to Twitter, goes to bed with it and is comforted by how much it revolves around him, the person he most often singled out for praise was himself — more than 2,000 times, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
The Times examined Trump’s use of Twitter since taking office, reviewing all his tweets, retweets and followers and interviewing nearly 50 current and former administration officials, lawmakers and Twitter executives and employees. What has emerged is a rich account, with new analysis, previously unreported episodes and fresh details of how the president exploits the platform to exert power.
It is often by brute repetition. He has taken to Twitter to demand action 1,159 times on immigration and his border wall, a top priority, and 521 times on tariffs, another key agenda item. Twitter is an instrument of his foreign policy: He has praised dictators more than a hundred times, while complaining nearly twice as much about the U.S.’ traditional allies. Twitter is the Trump administration’s de facto personnel office: The chief executive has announced the departures of more than two dozen top officials, some fired by tweet.
More than half of the president’s posts — 5,889 — have been attacks; no other category even comes close. His targets include the Russia investigation, a Federal Reserve that won’t bow to his whims, previous administrations, entire cities that are led by Democrats, and adversaries from outspoken athletes to chief executives who displease him. Like no other modern president, Trump has publicly harangued businesses to advance his political goals and silence criticism, often with talk of government intervention. Using Twitter, he threatened “Saturday Night Live” with an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission and accused Amazon, led by Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, of cheating the U.S. Postal Service.
As much as anything, Twitter is the broadcast network for Trump’s parallel political reality — the “alternative facts” he has used to spread conspiracy theories, fake information and extremist content, including material that energizes some of his base.
Trump’s use of Twitter has accelerated sharply since the end of the special counsel’s Russia investigation and reached a new high as Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry, the analysis shows. He tweeted more than 500 times during the first two weeks of October, a pace that put him on track to triple his monthly average. (The Times analyzed Trump’s tweets through Oct. 15. The total by the end of the month reached 11,887.)
His more than 66 million Twitter followers have become his private polling service, offering what he sees as validation for his performance in office. But fewer than one-fifth of his followers are voting-age Americans, according to a Times analysis of Pew Research national surveys of adults who use Twitter.
The White House press office declined to comment for this article and turned down an interview request with the president. Now, as Trump anticipates a bitter reelection battle and faces an impeachment inquiry by Democrats, the stakes are higher than ever before, and Twitter even more central to his presidency.
His top campaign aides are embracing the outrage that Trump stirs with his tweets to reinforce his anti-establishment brand and strengthen his bond with the fiercely loyal supporters who propelled him into office. And as public backing for impeachment grows, the president is using the platform to build a defensive echo chamber.
While people around Trump acknowledge that his tweets can cause political damage, the president is confident in his mastery of Twitter.
This past week, as he announced that U.S. Special Forces had killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, Trump noted the terror group’s digital prowess. “They use the internet better than almost anybody in the world,” he said. “Perhaps other than Donald Trump.”
Policy Via Twitter
With a single tweet last fall, Trump sent his administration into a tailspin. “I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught,” he wrote in October 2018, angry about a caravan of migrants from Central America. “If unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”
Trump’s aides had tried for weeks to talk him out of shutting down the border; the logistics would be impossible and the economic pain extreme. The tweet prompted an emergency meeting down the hall from the Oval Office as aides scrambled to head off Trump’s impulse, according to people familiar with the frantic scene. Like others in this article, they spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the president.
The aides succeeded in temporarily holding him off, but the tweet crystallized for cautious bureaucrats exactly what he wanted: to stop people from coming into the country. In the months that followed, Trump’s threat helped to set off an effort inside the government to find ever more restrictive ways to block immigrants. Nearly six months later, Kirstjen Nielsen, homeland security secretary, was still trying to prevent a border shutdown when the president brought her resistance to an end.
“Kirstjen Nielsen,” he tweeted, “will be leaving her position.”
This is governing in the Trump era. For President Barack Obama, a tweet about a presidential proposal might mark the conclusion of a long, deliberative process. For Trump, Twitter is often the beginning of how policy is made.
“Suddenly there’s a tweet, and everything gets upended, and you spent the week trying to defend something else,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “This person thrives on chaos. What we may find disconcerting or upsetting or whatever, it is actually what keeps him going.”
In October 2017, Rex Tillerson, the president’s first secretary of state, was in China with a team of diplomats negotiating sanctions on Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, when Trump weighed in on Twitter. Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” he wrote. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
Two months later, a Reuters headline blared that Mick Mulvaney, who then was Trump’s new pick to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, had decided to put “on ice” sanctions against Wells Fargo for consumer abuses. It was little surprise: Mulvaney was an ally of the financial industry. But Trump had other ideas.
“Fines and penalties against Wells Fargo Bank for their bad acts against their customers and others will not be dropped, as has incorrectly been reported, but will be pursued and, if anything, substantially increased,” he tweeted.
Political appointees at the bureau wanted to affirm Trump’s desire publicly, despite long-standing policies against commenting on active investigations, according to former officials there. A spokesman for Mulvaney issued a statement saying only that he “shares the president’s firm commitment to punishing bad actors and protecting American consumers.”
According to two people with direct knowledge of the Wells Fargo inquiry, career bureau officials took Trump’s outburst as a green light to pursue aggressive negotiations with the bank, even as Mulvaney’s team prepared to dial back penalties in other cases or shelve them. Wells Fargo ultimately agreed to a billion-dollar federal settlement, the bureau’s largest-ever civil penalty.
Over time, Trump has turned Twitter into a means of presidential communication as vital as a statement from the White House press secretary or an Oval Office address. The press secretary has not held a daily on-camera press briefing — a decadeslong ritual of presidential messaging — since March. Instead, Trump’s Twitter activity drives the day.
And Trump has removed any doubt that his tweets carry the weight once reserved for more formal pronouncements.
In summer 2018, his aides repeatedly tried to reassure Republican lawmakers that the president backed their hard-line immigration bill, despite his remarks suggesting otherwise. But privately, Trump told several senators that there was only one certain sign of his support.
“If I don’t tweet it,” he said, according to two former senior advisers, “don’t listen to my staff.”
Adapting a Platform
When Trump entered office, aides were determined to rein in his itchy Twitter fingers.
In a series of informal conversations in early 2017, top White House officials discussed the possibility of a 15-minute delay on the president’s account, a technical change not unlike the five-second naughty-word system used by television networks. But, one former senior official said, they quickly abandoned the idea after recognizing the political peril if it leaked to the press — or to their boss.
Several weeks later, a trio of close advisers presented Trump with another idea. Gary Cohn, the top economic adviser; Hope Hicks, the president’s director of strategic communications; and Rob Porter, his staff secretary, argued that they should see the tweets before he sent them out.
Trump was skeptical, worrying that delayed tweets would be irrelevant, according to a former White House official. But he agreed to a weeklong trial. Within 72 hours, the president had resumed tweeting from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Three thousand miles away, in Silicon Valley, similar conversations were unfolding at Twitter’s offices, where executives faced the same dilemma as Trump’s inner circle: whether, and how, to restrain him.
At the time, Twitter lagged far behind larger competitors like Facebook. While popular among politicians and journalists, it was struggling financially. But the president’s incessant tweeting gave the company more currency.
His Twitter account often drove more “impressions” — a key company metric — than any other in the world. But some of his messages seemed to violate the company’s policies against abuse and incitement.
On a now-defunct internal company message board known as Twitter Buzz, some left-leaning employees favored barring the president. Trump’s behavior came up at almost every all-hands gathering and at many smaller meetings of executives. Some of them had set their phones to alert them whenever the president tweeted, according to a former employee who spoke on the condition of confidentiality.
“What I saw was a company coming to grips with an entirely new situation, a new level of scrutiny, a new level of vitriol,” said Dianna Colasurdo, a former account executive on Twitter’s political advertising sales team, “and working to adapt their policies in the moment to align with that.”
A turning point came in fall 2017, at the height of tensions with North Korea, when Trump tweeted that the rogue nation might not “be around much longer!” The country’s foreign minister called that a declaration of war. On Twitter, users wondered if the company would allow Trump to tweet his way into a nuclear conflict.
The response came the next day. Referring back to Trump’s online declaration, Twitter announced in a tweet that it took “newsworthiness” into account when evaluating whether to remove a post that violated its policies.
In an interview, Twitter executives said that newsworthiness had long figured into the company’s internal enforcement guidelines and that officials there had been formulating the announcement, which applied worldwide, months before Trump’s North Korea tweet. But former employees said they understood the announcement to be Trump-driven. Twitter did not want to be in the business of censoring the president.
Late in summer 2018, White House insiders tried again to curb Trump’s use of social media, according to two former aides. After a series of over-the-top weeks of tweeting — including calling Omarosa Manigault Newman, his onetime aide, “wacky” and “a lowlife” — several advisers suggested he go just two days without Twitter and see what happened. Trump nodded and then promptly discarded the advice.
King, who said most of his Republican colleagues wished the president would tweet less, added that whenever he had raised the issue with White House staff members, they shrugged helplessly.
“It’s not going to stop,” he recalled their saying. “Forget it; we’ve all tried.”
Soon enough, Trump was as prolific as ever.
On Sept. 13, he mocked Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, for claiming he could beat Trump in an election. “He doesn’t have the aptitude or ‘smarts’ & is a poor public speaker & nervous mess,” the president tweeted. Over the next 12 hours, Trump attacked two former FBI officials, accused The Wall Street Journal of getting a tariff story wrong and blasted former Secretary of State John Kerry for holding “illegal meetings” with Iran.
“BAD!” he wrote.
First Things First
Trump’s Twitter habit is most intense in the morning, when he is in the White House residence, watching Fox News, scrolling through his Twitter mentions and turning the social media platform into what one aide called the “ultimate weapon of mass dissemination.”
Of the attack tweets identified in the Times analysis, nearly half were sent between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., hours that Trump spends mostly without advisers present.
After waking early, Trump typically watches news shows recorded the previous night on his “Super TiVo,” several DVRs connected to a single remote. (The devices are set to record “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Fox Business Network; “Hannity,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “The Story With Martha MacCallum” on Fox News; and “Anderson Cooper 360” on CNN.)
He takes in those shows and the “Fox & Friends” morning program, then flings out comments on his iPhone. Then he watches as his tweets reverberate on cable channels and news sites.
Early on Sept. 2 — the start of a week in which he tweeted 198 times — the president sent a few benign tweets, then lashed out at Paul Krugman as a “Failing New York Times columnist” who “never got it!” Over the next 44 minutes, he fired off 10 more tweets. He disparaged Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO (“Likes what we are doing until the cameras go on.”) He called James Comey, the former FBI director, and his “dwindling group of friends” liars and traitors. He railed against The Washington Post and four women of color in Congress who called themselves “the Squad.”
Almost every morning that week, Trump kicked off the day with an attack on one critic or another: the “incompetent Mayor of London,” or “Bad ‘actress’ Debra The Mess Messing” — whom he accused of being racist — or the “Fake News Media.” He referred to conservative media outlets 45 times, berated the mainstream media 32 times and tweeted about conspiracy theories 12 times.
Sometimes the president’s apparent fury on Twitter is meant to troll his critics and get a rise out of them, many of his closest aides said. But they still brace themselves, knowing that they are likely to be blindsided by one of his tweets. Aides who gather for the early-morning staff meetings in the West Wing said their agenda was regularly blown up when their phones simultaneously went off with a tweet from the boss.
Once Trump arrives in the West Wing — usually after 10 a.m. — Dan Scavino, White House social media director, takes control of the Twitter account, tweeting as @realDonaldTrump from his own phone or computer. Trump rarely tweets in front of others, those close to him said, because he does not like to wear the reading glasses he needs to see the screen.
Instead, the president dictates tweets to Scavino, who sits in a closet-size room just off the Oval Office until Trump calls out “Scavino!” Often, he prints out suggested tweets in extra-large fonts for the president to sign off on. (A single-page article that Scavino recently printed out for him ran to six pages after the fonts were enlarged, according to one person who saw it.)
Scavino’s role in Trump’s Twitter machine has made him an unlikely White House power broker and the go-to person for aides, business executives, friends and lawmakers who want the president to tweet something. Conway noted what she called the hypocrisy of many Republicans who begged her to get Trump to stop tweeting during the 2016 campaign and now come to Scavino with suggestions. Scavino declined to be interviewed for this article.
He sometimes acts as a brake — or tries to — on the president’s tweeting impulses. When Trump started angrily posting about the “Squad,” Scavino told him it was a bad idea, according to an aide who witnessed the conversation. Along with Michael Dubke, who served as White House communications director for several months in 2017 and is from Buffalo, New York, home of the famous chicken wings, Scavino presented some tweets to Trump in degrees of outrageousness: “hot,” “medium” or “mild.” Trump, said one former official who saw the proposed messages, always picked the most incendiary ones and often wanted to make them even more provocative.
And while many of Trump’s tweets are shoot-from-the-hip attacks, he chews over others for days or even weeks, waiting for just the right moment to maximize the reaction, aides said.
He plotted for days to tweet about Mika Brzezinski, liberal co-host of the popular MSNBC morning program, according to former White House officials, before finally posting one morning in June 2017. He called her “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and wrote that she had been “bleeding badly from a face-lift” during a New Year’s Eve party.
In October of last year, the president started telling his aides that he planned to denounce Stormy Daniels, a pornographic-film actress who claimed to have had an affair with him more than a decade earlier. He said he wanted to call her a “horse face.”
Several current and former aides recalled telling Trump that it was a terrible idea and would renew accusations of misogyny against him. But he persisted.
Finally, after watching a Fox News report days later about how a federal judge had thrown out a lawsuit by Daniels, the president tapped out the tweet.
“Great, now I can go after Horseface and her 3rd rate lawyer in the Great State of Texas,” he wrote.
A Love of ‘Likes’
For Trump, Twitter reinforces his instincts about his performance as president.
After a rally in Dallas in mid-October, Trump’s aides prepared a large-type printout of tweets gushing over his speech that day, including one from Tomi Lahren, a Fox News commentator and host of a show on the Fox Nation site. Trump scrawled a thank-you note on one copy to Lahren — who then tweeted a picture of the letter back at the president.
Aides said they often compiled positive feedback for Trump. He revels in the stream of praise from his most loyal followers on paper or as he scrolls through his phone early in the morning and late at night. He considers his following to be like the ratings on a TV show, better than any approval poll. After one weekend Twitter spree, the president told Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary at the time, he had expected a tweet he was particularly proud of to get more response than it did, according to a former administration official. Sanders said that if he tweeted 60 times, people wouldn’t pay as much attention, the official said.
The president is keenly aware of his number of followers and reluctant to acknowledge that any of them are not real. Trump has accused Twitter of political bias for its periodic purges of bot accounts across the platform, which have cost him — and other prominent users — hundreds of thousands of followers. When he met with the company’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, in April, Trump reportedly pressed him at length about the lost followers.
There is plenty of evidence that Trump’s Twitter following may not be a reliable proxy for what the American people think of the job he is doing.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty how many of Trump’s more than 66 million followers are fake. Some studies of his followers have estimated that a high proportion are likely to be automated bots, fake accounts or inactive. But even a conservative analysis by the Times found that nearly a third of them, about 22 million, included no biographical information and used the service’s default profile image — two signs the accounts may be rarely used or inactive. Fourteen percent have automatically generated user names, another indication that an account may not belong to a real person.
Even if Trump is not shouting into the void on Twitter, he is often preaching to the converted. Data from Stirista, an analytics firm, shows that his followers tend to be the kind of users who are most likely to be his supporters — disproportionately older, white and male compared with Twitter users overall.
And they constitute just a fraction of the electorate. According to the Times analysis of Pew data, only about 4% of American adults, or about 11 million people, follow him on Twitter. Those followers represent less that one-fifth of his total, the analysis shows.
According to data from YouGov, which polls about most of the president’s tweets, some of the topics on which Trump got the most likes and retweets — jabs at the NFL, posts about the special counsel’s investigation, unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud — poll poorly with the general public.
But people close to Trump said there was no dissuading him that the “likes” a tweet got were evidence that a decision or policy proposal was well received.
Last December, after Trump announced plans to withdraw some troops from Syria, lawmakers came to the White House to argue against it. According to Politico, Trump responded by calling in Scavino.
“Tell them how popular my policy is,” Trump asked Scavino, who described for the lawmakers social media postings that had praised Trump’s decision. Aides said that for Trump, his Twitter “likes” were proof that he had made the right call.
The reaction in the outside world was far less favorable. Within weeks, Trump’s defense secretary and the special anti-ISIS envoy quit over the decision. U.S. allies were enraged. More than two-thirds of the Senate voted to rebuke Trump, who agreed under pressure to keep the troops in Syria.
Almost a year later, U.S. troops in Syria became an issue again after Trump appeared to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey a green light to invade Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria.
That resulted in another congressional rebuke for Trump and complaints even from loyal Republican allies. In subsequent days, Trump sought to defend himself on Twitter, alternately denying he had abandoned the Kurds and suggesting the United States had no stake in their safety, threatening Erdogan if the incursion continued and praising Turkey as an important trading partner.
Many people took note of the back-and-forth, including Erdogan. “When we take a look at Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts, we can no longer follow them,” the Turkish president told reporters mockingly in mid-October, according to Hurriyet, a Turkish newspaper. “We cannot keep track.”
A Tool for Reelection
In the months ahead, the man tasked with winning Trump a second term is hoping to focus the president’s Twitter habit on its original purpose: connecting with voters.
Brad Parscale, who served as Trump’s digital director in 2016 and is now campaign manager, has worked closely with Scavino to shape perceptions of the president through social media. The two men speak a half-dozen times a day, according to people familiar with their interactions.
Parscale criticized Twitter after it announced Wednesday that it would no longer allow paid political advertising on the platform, calling it “yet another attempt to silence conservatives.” But the change may benefit Trump: He has a far larger organic Twitter following than any of his likely Democratic opponents and is therefore less reliant on paid ads to spread his message through the platform.
While some campaign aides said Trump’s tweets can be a distraction, they also view Twitter as an essential tool to present him as someone strong, willing to stand up to so-called political elites and what the president recently called the “unholy alliance of corrupt Democrat politicians, deep-state bureaucrats and the fake-news media.”
The aides seek to cultivate the image of a man who understands “regular people.” Trump’s team believes that his unvarnished writing, poor punctuation and increasing profanity on Twitter signals authenticity — a contrast to the polished, vetted, often anodyne social media style of most candidates.
Twitter, Conway said, is the president’s most potent weapon when it comes to bypassing the powerful people he believes have controlled the flow of information too long.
“It’s the democratization of information,” she said. Everyone receives Trump’s tweets at once — the stay-at-home mom, the plumber working on the sink, the billionaire executive, the White House correspondent.
“They all hear ‘ping,’” she said, “at the same time.”
The New York Times reviewed every tweet and retweet sent by President Donald Trump from Jan. 20, 2017, through Oct. 15, 2019. Each one was evaluated and tagged for several factors: whether it included an attack or praise; who or what was attacked or praised; and for topics including trade, immigration, the military, the economy, the 2018 midterm elections, the Russia investigation and the House impeachment inquiry. In the Times analysis, retweets in each of those categories were counted as tweets.
The Times reviewed each Twitter account that followed Trump by analyzing profile information, tweet frequency and the date the account was created. The Times also used data from Pew Research to estimate how many American adults follow Trump on Twitter. Pew Research conducted a nationally representative sample of American adults with personal, public Twitter accounts to analyze how many follow American politicians.
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