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Trump Tweets and What to do About Them
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Charlottesville viewer Peter Wilkin has had enough of President Trump’s tweets:

“I and my wife are fed up with your coverage of what trump tweets or states instead of broadcasting real news. For example today the fact that trump blames obama for the russian hacks is the first thing your news has all day long - but so what? cover the news, not trump”

That’s not an uncommon sentiment. I often encounter people who concur, enough with the tweets, let’s get to substance.

When Twitter first started more than a decade ago, I am quite sure that no one, including its founders, imagined that the social media tool would be a mechanism for pronouncements of administration policy and a primary source for hearing from the president of the United States about all manner of things. 

Twitter became a very effective tool for political coverage – journalists talking to each other (and the public) and sharing their scoops as it was a place to break the first sentence rather than the first draft of news.

Twitter also became a place that politicians had to occupy in order to be in the game.  Every politician had a Twitter account. It was another tool with which to reach both an audience and political reporters.

But politicians were, for the most part, not native Twitter users.  Their use of Twitter was mostly carefully curated and word-smithed.  For President Barack Obama if a tweet included the initials "bo" you knew that he actually wrote it, that it wasn’t curated and written by a team of social media and communications experts.

The @POTUS feed was the official Twitter feed of the President of the United States, a Twitter handle to be passed on to future occupants of the White House.  Former President Obama still tweets under the handle @BarackObama – but it still reads mostly like a careful communications tool.

Enter Donald J. Trump, reality TV star, New York real estate player and all round self-promoter.  He joined Twitter in March 2009 and his tweets are Donald Trump through and through.  He "got" Twitter and seemed to enjoy it.

Private citizen Trump had so much to share on Twitter.  He used it as a promotional tool for his businesses: 

And a self-promotional tool: 

He had an opinion about everything and was adept at making waves with his 140-character pronouncements (since increased to 280 characters).

Nothing made more political waves than his continued questioning of the birthplace of President Obama, the "birther" conspiracy. 

He sure knew how to get a rise with his Twitter use. 

Throughout the campaign of 2016, Mr. Trump continued to use Twitter and I think it was viewed almost as an oddity that was highlighted in a way that resembled examining something in a specimen jar.  As with many aspects of his campaign, his Twitter use broke the mold in politics and it flummoxed a lot of people. As candidate Trump he continued to tweet under the @realDonaldTrump handle and he used it prolifically.

It was not meant to continue when he became president.  In fact, in his first interview as president-elect, he told Lesley Stahl of CBS News that he would probably tamp down on the Twitter use.

Of course we know how that turned out.

While I’m sympathetic to Mr. Wilkin’s feelings about covering the president’s tweets, I have to say that reporters would be derelict in their duty if they did not cover his tweets.

News breaks on President Trump’s Twitter feed with alarming regularity.  From declaration of policy before even the relevant government departments know about it:

To the public firing of administration personnel:

And the public hiring of personnel:

A method he has used on more than one occasion. 

Mr. Trump also uses it to communicate foreign policy:

The president’s tweets, from the handle @realDonaldTrump, are statements and they speak for themselves. No interpretation necessary.  Don’t take my word for it, here’s the president’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer:

And the Department of Justice has also argued that the president’s tweets are official statements from the White House. In a submission to the D.C. Federal Court, they stated:

“In answer to the Court’s question, the government is treating the President’s statements to which plaintiffs point — whether by tweet, speech or interview — as official statements of the President of the United States.” 

Global allies and adversaries are also paying attention to the president’s tweets:

The Kremlin has said that they see the tweets as official statements. Reuters quotes Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “In any case, everything which is published from his authorised Twitter account is perceived by Moscow as his official statement."

And erstwhile allies aren’t fully convinced that discussions with the president about matters of policy are reliable since he often takes to Twitter after a meeting to vent or amend what he’s said before and they also use Twitter to respond to the president, like this tweet from EU President Donald Tusk:

Even independent counsel Robert Mueller is reported to be looking at the president’s tweets as part of his current investigations.

Like it or not, Twitter affords us a first-hand, unfiltered look at how the president thinks and what moves him.  He may be in his 70’s but in many ways he is a Twitter native.

There hasn’t been much definitive science on how these social media tools affect us over the long term yet, but there is a sense that our activity on these platforms does affect our brains and behavior in some way.

Out of necessity the presidency can be a confining and lonely place, where every step and utterance is subject to multiple layers of review and thought and planning and editing.

By all accounts the president is still using an unsecure phone to engage on Twitter under his personal Twitter account to do what he’s been doing for years – speak his mind. At a time when we are told that the public is looking for authenticity in its leaders, Twitter allows us to see Mr. Trump’s authentic self.

So what’s a reporter to do?  

What’s important to me is that there is context provided when covering the president’s tweets. 

The president doesn't just hire and fire people or make policy pronouncements on Twitter. He vents, and argues, and he criticizes and he makes claims that are just not true. Like this tweet for instance: 

The claim that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election is just plain false.

Unfortunately nuance and fact checking can’t fit in a headline or top of the hour news briefs, so when I see or hear a headline that just repeats a tweet it makes me cringe because you can't provide the context or fact check. 

But in all other political coverage, reporting and analyzing and fact checking the president’s tweets come with the territory.

Mr. Wilkin may be fed up with Twitter and want coverage of "the news not Trump" but, Mr. Wilkin, Trump is news and so are, for good or ill, his tweets.

Posted on Aug. 3, 2018 at 6:29 a.m.