Trump, twitter, transparency and trouble

Commentary

by William H. Freivogel

During the presidential election, critics of the media maintained the press paid too much attention to Donald Trump’s tweets. Focusing on the tweets let Trump set the day’s news agenda and gave him oodles of free coverage, the critics said.

Five months into Trump’s presidency it is the president’s lawyers, spokespeople, diplomats and other White House aides who wish the president would pipe down.

But Trump won’t be silenced. Even though it is his aides telling him to limit his tweets, Trump blames his usual foil for trying to shut him up – the dishonest mainstream media. “The FAKE MSM is working so hard to get me not to use Social Media,” he tweeted this week. “They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.” Trump also points out he wouldn’t have won the election without his tweets reaching tens of millions of people.

But winning the election is one thing. Running the world’s leading democracy and most powerful country is another.

Some of the biggest controversies and setbacks of the Trump presidency trace back to Trump tweets – the false claim that President Obama tapped Trump Tower, his warning to fired FBI director James Comey there might be tapes of their conversations and his insistence that his executive order is a travel ban even though his lawyers have labored assiduously to say it isn’t.

Kellyanne Conway blamed the media this week for “this obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.”

Conway had reason to be in a bad mood. Her husband George, a well-know conservative lawyer, criticized the president’s tweet on the travel ban in a tweet of his own. Conway said Trump’s tweet won’t help “get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters. Sad.”

Many legal observers thought the conservative majority on the Supreme Court would be more inclined than lower courts to buy the administration argument that judges should consider only the four corners of the executive order rather than looking at Trump’s statements as a presidential candidate. But it’s hard not to look at the words Trump is writing today about the intention to impose a travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries.

The White House had conflicting guidance on whether the tweets are official policy. Sebastian Gorka, a senior White House national security official, told CNN that “It’s not policy. It’s social media.” But press spokesman Sean Spicer said the tweets were official statements.

Trump’s tweet war was a world war by mid-week as he repeatedly misquoted and insulted the mayor of London after terrorists attacked his city. And Trump took credit for Saudi Arabia’s move to close the border to Qatar, even though his secretary of state had said he wanted to mediate the dispute.

Trump even may live tweet his criticism of Comey’s testimony on Thursday, a prospect that must give his lawyers indigestion. Trump might have had a decent argument to block Comey’s testimony based on executive privilege, but for his tweets and public statements about his discussions with Comey. Those comments waived any privilege that might have existed.

One could argue that the public and the media should be happy. No other president has been so open about what he is thinking in real time. Isn’t transparency what we’re always demanding? And don’t we want the president to speak directly to the American people?

Also, it seems Trump occasionally commits truth in his tweets – or what he thinks is true, often an entirely different matter. If Trump’s tweets were vetted by his lawyers and his diplomats, we never would have seen the tweets about Comey or the Russia investigation or the mayor of London.

And there’s the entertainment value. The tweets amuse loyal supporters, serve up delicious outrage to opponents and provide wonderful late night comedy.

Still, this is no way to form policy and run a government. It is chaotic and makes the United States a laughing stock. All the world can see that the one thing that animates the most powerful man in the world is to always be the center of attention. Trump would be more effective if he got a little more sleep and stayed off the 8 a.m. twitter cycle.