It’s often very hard to figure out whether President Donald Trump has a theory of the case – any case, really – or is simply winging it.
The first two years of his presidency strongly suggest the latter option to be true in almost all cases; Trump seems to begin each day with little memory or care for the day before. He just reacts to what he’s seeing. It’s that simple.
But in one important element of his presidency – Twitter – Trump appears to be operating somewhat strategically, as evidenced by his explanation about how he views the social networking service in an interview with Fox News Channel over the weekend:
“Twitter is really a typewriter for me. It’s really not Twitter – it’s – Twitter goes on television, or if they have breaking news, I’ll tweet, I’ll say ‘Watch this – boom.’ I did the Golan Heights to Israel, and I put it out on Twitter. If I put out a news release nobody’s even going to see it. Today’s Huawei, I put it out on Twitter, people see. That’s not to build Twitter. That’s to say that as soon as it goes out, it goes on television, it goes on Facebook, it goes all over the place and it’s instant – it really is, to me it’s a modern way to communicate.”
Trump is decidedly inarticulate in how he explains his approach to Twitter, but if you take out all the verbal asides, self-interrupting and other oddness, what you are left with is this: Trump understands that tweeting something from his personal account is the most reliable way to ensure that it will get noticed and covered – and quickly.
And he is right. When Trump tweets something like “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” (as he did on Sunday), the cable networks – and most digital news sites – will quickly cover the tweet: providing context, analyzing the global impact and the like.
The connection between Trump’s Twitter fingers and almost-immediate news coverage has long been a point of contention among liberals (and Republican “never Trumpers”) who insist that the media is allowing the President to dictate not only the subjects for national debate but also the terms on which the questions will be argued.
Ignore his tweets, they say! He’s only sending them because he knows he can get attention, they say!
That second formulation is, without question, true. But is Trump all that different than any other politician in that regard? He wants to his take on whatever issue is on his mind beamed out to the public – and he uses whatever means are available to him. Yes, he speaks in deeply unconventional ways. But using the biggest megaphone you think you can get – in Trump’s case “Twitter + TV” – is nothing new.
It’s also tough to make the case that the media should ignore Trump’s tweets. Take the instance over the weekend mentioned above. The President of the United States is sending a near-bellicose message to Iran regarding the amped-up tensions between America and the Middle Eastern nation. And that message comes in the wake of a battleship carrier fleet being moved into the region to deal with apparent imminent threats posed by Iran. Ignoring such a statement by the President – whether it comes in the form of a tweet or a formal statement from the White House – would be a dereliction of the media’s duty. (You can be sure Iran isn’t ignoring that tweet.)
(Sidebar: One disagreement I have with Trump’s “typewriter” philosophy on Twitter is that I seriously doubt the media would ignore a press release from the White House that quoted the President telling Iran to “never threaten the United States again!”)
Trump’s rampant use of Twitter to drive policy, float trial balloons and, yes, exact revenge on his enemies (political and otherwise) is a new thing in this media-political environment. Former President Barack Obama had Twitter but didn’t use it like Trump – or anything close to it. And it’s clear that Trump understands that by leveraging his power on Twitter, he can signal boost his preferred message almost anywhere.
Rather than ignore Trump’s tweets, which, as I said, isn’t really a viable option, what the media should do instead is provide lots and lots of context and fact-checking around them. Don’t let the tweets sit in a vacuum. Provide the necessary materials to ensure the public who is consuming Trump’s tweets is also getting any information he is leaving out or misstating.
Will that reach everyone? No. Some people have no interest in context and additional facts. Will it change lots of minds? Not necessarily, because, well some people have no interest in changing their minds based on facts. But it will ensure the media is doing its job of informing the public – even with a President like this one who is doing his best to tear down that journalistic responsibility.