Mr. Trump became a celebrity through television, but Twitter had given him a singular outlet for expressing himself as he is, unfiltered by the norms of the presidency.
.. Over the years of his presidency, as controversies and investigations of his conduct began to grow, television became a less reliable safe space. Broadcast networks, pressured to be more aggressive in their approach to him and his aides, asked tougher questions. With the exception of Fox News, cable networks that had rushed to put him on air throughout 2016 and the early stages of his presidency clamped down, cutting back on broadcasting his live appearances in particular.
And his adventures in the White House briefing room generally did not go well and revealed the limits of his grasp of policy or current events. One Trump adviser was blunt, saying that the president did not like most aspects of his job, and that included being asked questions for which he did not know the answers.
So when Mr. Trump went to the briefing room for weeks in the spring to discuss the coronavirus, advisers said, he liked the visual aspects of his performance but not the reality of having a back and forth that led to him being condemned and ridiculed for his dangerous statements about fighting the virus with bleach and light and his fact-free assertions about everything getting better.
Twitter became a stage he could manage more tightly.
It was telling that throughout his time in office, Mr. Trump chose as his primary Twitter channel his @realdonaldtrump account and not his official @Potus account. He understood the power of building his personal brand and keeping it separate from his official duties as president. Twitter gave him a singular outlet for expressing himself as he is, unfiltered by the norms of the presidency.
He would scroll his own Twitter feed, looking at the replies for new topics to throw out. He studied the Twitter trending lists as signals of where the discourse was headed.
In some way, television became the medium through which he could watch the effects of his tweets.
The television in his alcove dining room off the Oval Office was usually on in the background, catnip for his short attention span. He consumed much of his information through it and watched the coverage of his tweets.
Mr. Trump’s White House aides said he loved tweeting and then watching the chyrons on cable news channels quickly change in response. For a septuagenarian whose closest allies and aides say often exhibits the emotional development of a preteen, and for whom attention has been a narcotic, the instant gratification of his tweets was hard to match.
Advisers insisted that they were still exploring the possibility of another platform where the president could speak his mind without filter.
But for now, Mr. Trump has been forced into a more traditional presidential communications posture, reliant on having to stage events with visual allure in the hopes of attracting television coverage. That is what he intends to do on Tuesday with a trip to the southwestern border to promote what he says is progress in meeting his promise to build a wall there.
And with all the outrage and drama that he has stirred in the closing chapter of his presidency, Mr. Trump may yet take advantage of an opportunity to schedule one last major appearance before leaving office.
Jason Miller, a Trump senior adviser, said that if Mr. Trump did give such an address, it would force television networks to make a difficult choice: whether to follow Twitter in silencing the president or allowing him to speak to the American people.
“I would say to many members of the media: Be careful what you wish for,” Mr. Miller said.
In theory, President Trump is in a pitched battle with Joe Biden for the presidency. In reality, Mr. Trump is in a battle with Mr. Trump.
That’s one way to look at the recent round of sliding Trump poll numbers, which the media and Democrats are prematurely hailing as an obituary for the administration, but which also have Republicans nervous. Mr. Trump’s path to re-election rests in painting a sharp contrast between his policies of economic restoration, a transformed judiciary and limited government with those of Mr. Biden’s promise of (at best) a return to the slow growth of the Obama years or (at worst) an embrace of progressive nirvana. Instead, he’s helping Democrats and the media make the race a referendum on his Twitter feed.
“Let Trump be Trump!” cry the president’s supporters. They argue it worked before. But this isn’t 2016. The U.S. is emerging from an unprecedented pandemic lockdown that left millions unemployed or bankrupt, children without education, the social order in shambles. The fury that followed George Floyd’s death has put Americans on the edge. They need calm leadership and a positive vision for the future.
Mr. Trump offers glimpses. His May 30 speech following the historic manned SpaceX launch—which addressed the Floyd killing—was a call for justice and peace as well as a tribute to American aspiration. In a subsequent Rose Garden speech, he deplored Floyd’s “brutal death” and reminded viewers that “America needs creation, not destruction.” A week later, his Rose Garden remarks celebrated a jobs report that defied gloomy predictions, and it showcased the American desire to get back to work.
The Trump campaign makes a compelling case that it is nonsensical to claim Democrats are running away with the race. Democratic pollster Doug Schoen wrote that the recent CNN survey showing Mr. Biden up 14 points nationally was skewed—it underrepresented Republicans and counted registered voters rather than likely ones. Match-ups still look tight in swing states.
Mr. Biden is also grappling with an enthusiasm problem. Mr. Trump this year has set records in primary after primary in voter turnout—even though he is uncontested. A recent ABC poll showed only 34% of Biden supporters were “very enthusiastic” about their nominee, compared with 69% of those backing Mr. Trump. Officials also note that the race—at least the mano-a-mano part of it—has yet to begin.
But there’s no question Mr. Trump’s numbers have eroded, both overall and among key voter subgroups. The latest Gallup poll finds only 47% approval of his handling of the economy, down from 63% in January. Those numbers are bleeding into congressional races, putting Republican control of the Senate at risk and raising the possibility of a rout in the House. If the Trump campaign can’t turn things around, the country could be looking at total Democratic control for the first time since 2010—and a liberal Senate majority that may well eliminate the filibuster for legislation and pack the courts. The stakes are high.
The prospect of a turnaround rests on Mr. Trump’s ability to do more than taunt his competitor as “Sleepy Joe” and rail against the “RADICAL LEFT!!” With an economy in tatters, Mr. Trump has an opening to redefine the election as a choice. Americans can vote again for the policies that revived the economy after the moribund Obama-Biden years and continue transforming the judiciary. Or they can take a chance on a Democrat who has promised to raise taxes on 90% of Americans, kill blue-collar fossil-fuel jobs and ban guns, and a party that is considering demands to “defund the police.”
Democrats want this election to be a simple question of whether Americans want four more years of a chaotic White House. The country has had its fill of chaos, so that could prove a powerful message for Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump has to decide just how much he wants to help him.
Most GOP senators tried to deflect questions about the president’s latest controversial tweet.
If there was ever a tweet from President Donald Trump that Senate Republicans didn’t want to touch, it’s this one.
For four years, Senate Republicans have endured a regular gantlet of reporters’ questions about Trump tweets, ranging from attacks on their own colleagues to telling a handful of congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries they came from.
Trump’s tweet Tuesday morning attacking a 75-year old protester in Buffalo — who was shoved by the police and bled from his head after falling — stunned some in a caucus that’s grown used to the president’s active Twitter feed. After examining a print-out of the tweet, Sen. Lisa Murkowski gasped: “oh lord, Ugh.”
“Why would you fan the flames?” she said of the president’s tweet. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
But though the moderate Murkowski was nearly rendered speechless, the missive mostly failed to get a rise out of Senate Republicans. Many know Trump will tweet something else soon they will be asked to respond to, even if the Buffalo tweet seemed a new frontier for Trump’s insult-laden social media persona.
“It’s a serious accusation, which should only be made with facts and evidence. And I haven’t seen any,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) “Most of us up here would rather not be political commentators on the president’s tweets. That’s a daily exercise that is something you all have to cover… Saw the tweet. Saw the video. It’s a serious accusation.”
But those senators were the rare ones speaking out. Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who marched with Black Lives Matters protesters and voted to oust Trump from office in the impeachment trial, seemed exasperated.
“I saw the tweet,” Romney said. “It was a shocking thing to say and I won’t dignify it with any further comment.”
Many GOP senators declined Tuesday to respond to Trump’s tweet suggesting Martin Gugino, the Buffalo protester, “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.’ The president added, without evidence, that Gugino may have been trying to “set up” the police officers who hurt him. The tweet did not come up at the Republicans’ weekly lunch, according to an attendee.
Republican senators have a well-worn playbook by now if they don’t want to wade into the latest tweet-fueled controversy by saying they hadn’t seen Trump’s latest comments. Still, even when provided paper copies of the president’s tweet on Tuesday, many declined to view them.
Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) declined to comment on the tweet, saying they hadn’t read it. When asked whether they wanted to see the tweet, both showed little interest. Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he had “no information about that man or who he is.”
Other senators said they’ve stopped paying attention to Trump’s tweets altogether. Citing what he called a longstanding policy about Trump, Sen Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said: “I don’t comment on the tweets.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who read a reporter’s printout of the tweet, said he knows “nothing of the episode,” which occurred last week and prompted widespread outrage. The Buffalo police department later suspended the two police officers involved without pay, and the Erie County District Attorney charged the officers with assault. Both pleaded not guilty and were released without bail.
But Cramer suggested he’s long accepted the president’s communication style.
“I don’t think Donald Trump is going to change his behavior,” Cramer said. “I’ll say this: I worry more about the country itself than I do about what President Trump tweets.”
Trump’s tweets questioning Gugino’s credibility come amid a nationwide reckoning about police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Senate Republicans have urged the president to take on a more unifying tone but so far Trump has proven resistant.
Last week, peaceful protesters were cleared outside of the White House with tear gas so that the president could pose for a photo outside of a church, prompting a rare Republican rebuke.
The president’s latest attack on Gugino highlights the complicated prospects of Congress getting anything done when it comes to police reform. Democrats unveiled a sweeping police reform package Monday that would ban chokeholds and limit “qualified immunity” for police officers, among other provisions. Romney said Monday that he’s planning to introduce his own police reform bill and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is also working on a proposal.
While Republicans have offered criticism of Trump’s handling of the protests, GOP senators see little upside in getting into a public argument with the president these days.
When asked about Trump’s tweet, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.) merely replied: “I think it would best if the president did not comment on issues that are before the courts.”
This spring I taught a seminar (via Zoom, of course) at the University of Chicago on the art of political persuasion. We read Lincoln, Pericles, King, Orwell, Havel and Churchill, among other great practitioners of the art. We ended with a study of Donald Trump’s tweets, as part of a class on demagogy.
If the closing subject was depressing, at least the timing was appropriate.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented national catastrophe. The catastrophe is not the pandemic, or an economic depression, or killer cops, or looted cities, or racial inequities. These are all too precedented. What’s unprecedented is that never before have we been led by a man who so completely inverts the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
With malice toward all; with charity for none: eight words that encapsulate everything this president is, does and stands for.
What does one learn when reading great political speeches and writings? That well-chosen words are the way by which past deeds acquire meaning and future deeds acquire purpose. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” are the only false notes in the Gettysburg Address. The Battle of Gettysburg is etched in national memory less for its military significance than because Lincoln reinvented the goals of the Civil War in that speech — and, in doing so, reimagined the possibilities of America.
Political writing doesn’t just provide meaning and purpose. It also offers determination, hope and instruction.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” written at one of the grimmer moments of Communist tyranny, Václav Havel laid out why the system was so much weaker, and the individual so much stronger, than either side knew. In his “Fight on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill told Britons of “a victory inside this deliverance” — a reason, however remote, for resolve and optimism. In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., explained why patience was no answer to injustice: “When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
In a word, great political writing aims to elevate. What, by contrast, does one learn by studying Trump’s utterances?
The purpose of Trump’s presidency is to debase, first by debasing the currency of speech. It’s why he refuses to hire reasonably competent speechwriters to craft reasonably competent speeches. It’s why his communication team has been filled by people like Dan Scavino and Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Sanders.
And it’s why Twitter is his preferred medium of communication. It is speech designed for provocations and put-downs; for making supporters feel smug; for making opponents seethe; for reducing national discourse to the level of grunts and counter-grunts.
That’s a level that suits Trump because it’s the level at which he excels. Anyone who studies Trump’s tweets carefully must come away impressed by the way he has mastered the demagogic arts. He doesn’t lead his base, as most politicians do. He personifies it. He speaks to his followers as if he were them. He cultivates their resentments, demonizes their opponents, validates their hatreds. He glorifies himself so they may bask in the reflection.
Whatever this has achieved for him, or them, it’s a calamity for us. At a moment when disease has left more than 100,000 American families bereft, we have a president incapable of expressing the nation’s heartbreak. At a moment of the most bitter racial grief since the 1960s, we have a president who has bankrupted the moral capital of the office he holds.
And at a moment when many Americans, particularly conservatives, are aghast at the outbursts of looting and rioting that have come in the wake of peaceful protests, we have a president who wants to replace rule of law with rule by the gun. If Trump now faces a revolt by the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership (both current and former) against his desire to deploy active-duty troops in American cities, it’s because his words continue to drain whatever is left of his credibility as commander in chief.
I write this as someone who doesn’t lay every national problem at Trump’s feet and tries to give him credit when I think it’s due.
Trump is no more responsible for the policing in Minneapolis than Barack Obama was responsible for policing in Ferguson. I doubt the pandemic would have been handled much better by a Hillary Clinton administration, especially considering the catastrophic errors of judgment by people like Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo. And our economic woes are largely the result of a lockdown strategy most avidly embraced by the president’s critics.
But the point here isn’t that Trump is responsible for the nation’s wounds. It’s that he is the reason some of those wounds have festered and why none of them can heal, at least for as long as he remains in office. Until we have a president who can say, as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and be believed in the bargain — our national agony will only grow worse.