As someone who spends a frankly unhealthy amount of my day on Twitter, I have to say that it concerns me how much time President-elect Donald Trump spends on Twitter. That particular social-media platform is many things, few of them good: a miserable time suck, a forever-grinding outrage machine, a vehicle for harassment. It actively encourages you to discard nuance and blast out your worst, most troll-like thoughts. It’s a great way to follow the news, and it’s an equally great way to get snookered by fake news. The fact that it’s a medium of choice for the next president is … unsettling.
Donald Trump’s continued use of Twitter as a platform to provoke and pot-stir has, curiously, given rise to the idea that tweets from the president-elect should either be ignored or downplayed. You see different people making this argument for different reasons. Republican leaders in Congress have adopted the unsustainable position that they’re not going to comment on public statements from Trump because they are delivered via Twitter. When Trump tweeted that he was going to cancel the contract with Boeing for the new Air Force One, Speaker Paul Ryan begged off giving his reaction. “Do you think I’m going to comment on the daily tweets? I’m just not going to be doing that,” he said.
Well, yes, actually. We do think you’re going to do that. When the president-elect who is also the nominal leader of your political party does something provocative or crazy, you can’t dismiss it as just a tweet. A statement from the president-elect is a statement from the president-elect, whether it’s oral, tweeted, etched in marble or smeared in guano on the wall of a cave.
On the left, the going theory is that pretty much every time Trump tweets, he’s doing so to draw media attention away from some other more important story. Sometimes this argument has merit, like when the next leader of the free world spent several days tweeting mean stuff at some Broadway actors — obviously there were more important things for the rest of us (and him) to focus on. But it’s become something of a reflex, to the point that his bug-nuts positions on important issues like, say, the First Amendment, get relegated to just-a-distraction status because something else is happening.
The way I’ve been approaching this is fairly straightforward: Treat tweets from the president-elect as though they’re statements from the president. Which is to say: they all carry the weight of presidency, regardless of what we believe the super-secret motivation might be behind them. Trump’s recent tweeting about nuclear weapons is a clarifying example of why his Twitter communications strategy is insane and needs to be treated seriously.
To recap: Donald Trump tweeted this on Dec. 22:
Apparently it was a response to something Vladimir Putin had said about Russia’s own nuclear intentions. I read it as a statement of policy: Donald Trump intends to initiate an open-ended nuclear buildup that will continue “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” (meaning “never”). But soon after he delivered this statement of policy, his own team of advisors and aides began spinning it as something less than it seemed. Transition spokesman Jason Miller said Trump “was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.” Trump’s incoming White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, tried arguing that Trump wasn’t talking about an arms race, but also that Trump will “match other countries and take action” in response to a foreign nuclear buildup.
The clear intent of Trump’s team is to muddy up what their boss said to the point that it becomes meaningless. But they are not the final word on the matter. Trump is. And for as long as he allows that tweet and its message to remain unaltered, it stands as his statement on nuclear policy.
We can’t allow ourselves to slip into the habit of disregarding what Trump says on Twitter because it’s “just a tweet.” He lost “just a tweet” privileges the moment the networks called the 2016 election for him. The words of the president always carry the weight of the office, regardless of how they’re delivered and irrespective of whether the president tweeting those words understands that the message outweighs the medium.