President Donald Trump wants you to take his tweets literally and seriously — even if his aides, lawyers and allies are perpetually forced to clean up the mess after.
The tweets, more than his speeches or official statements issued by the White House press team, seem to represent the real Trump. It’s him speaking directly to the people, without any filters like prepared text, media commentary or even staff input. That’s why Trump likes it, and why it can cause so much trouble for a White House that constantly struggles to drive a consistent message.
Trump, facing an escalating Russia investigation and a floundering legislative agenda, has unleashed his frustration through Twitter in recent days, berating the mayor of London after his city was the site of a terrorist attack, castigating the American courts as “slow and political,” calling on Democrats to expedite confirmations even as his pace of appointments lags, and going after his own Justice Department for adjusting an executive order that required his approval and received it.
Republican leaders in Congress and even White House aides have long sought to downplay the president’s Twitter musings, but that is becoming more difficult as Trump on Twitter seems to be the most authentic version of the president Americans have access to.
“The words of the president matter whether they’re spoken, written in a press release or sent out in a Tweet,” said Ryan Williams, a political communications consultant and longtime spokesman for Mitt Romney. “Whatever the leader of the free world says and does is important and has meaning to it.”
Trump himself has talked frankly about his Twitter habit, insisting that his tweets represent his true thinking. "I can do messages around the media and get my word out, the way I mean my word," he told the Christian Broadcasting Network at the end of January.
But White House officials on Monday once again tried to push the idea that Trump’s tweets are not the official word out of the Oval Office as they faced questions about Trump’s various declarations over the past 48 hours.
“They are not policy,” Sebastian Gorka, a senior White House national security official, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo about Trump’s tweets. “It’s not policy. It’s social media, Chris. It’s social media. You know the difference, right?”
White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, slammed the media during an appearance on the “Today” show for “this obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.”
And principal deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders gave conflicting messages at the press briefing, when she was asked at least a dozen questions related to the president’s statements on Twitter.
“They matter in the sense that it gives him a communications tool, again that isn’t filtered through media bias,” Sanders said at one point. “But at the same time I do think that the media obsesses over every period, dot.”
Despite the White House’s advice to not read too much into Trump’s tweets, there’s a greater debate taking shape about whether Trump’s tweets, most often sent through @realDonaldTrump and not @POTUS, should be treated as official statements.
A new Twitter account, @RealPressSecBot recently began converting the president’s tweets to appear in the format of official White House statements.
The press isn’t the only institution keeping an eye on the president’s Twitter feed. As the courts consider the constitutionality of Trump’s executive order banning entry to the U.S. from six Muslim-majority countries, the president’s remarks from the campaign and his tweets are likely to be a factor.
Neal Katyal, a former senior official on Barack Obama’s Justice Department who is representing Hawaii in challenging the ban, underscored the point Monday.
“Its kinda odd to have the defendant in Hawaii v. Trump acting as our co-counsel. We don’t need the help but will take it!” he wrote on Twitter, and included a picture of Trump’s tweets in the wake of the London attack, which called for a “much tougher version” of the travel ban that has already repeatedly been blocked by the courts.
Even Conway’s husband, George Conway, who recently withdrew himself from consideration for a job at DOJ criticized the president’s tweets on the travel ban.
The tweets, Conway wrote, won’t help administration lawyers “get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters. Sad.”
Trump could also be damaging himself when it comes to the sprawling probe into potential collusion between his campaign and Russian officials ahead of the election. Lawyers and veterans of past scandals have called Trump’s Twitter feed a “gold mine” that provides investigators with a timeline of Trump’s thoughts and opinions and could also be used to establish intent.
More immediately, Trump’s musings on Twitter are proving to be an unhelpful distraction for his team. His Monday morning blasts came as the White House was attempting to kick off a week focused on infrastructure plans. Any infrastructure headlines were quickly pushed to the back burner as the president’s own comments diverged to topics he found more interesting.
“I sympathize,” Williams said, “with the plight of the White House communications staff.”
Trump, however, has made it clear that pleas for him to end his Twitter usage will fall on deaf ears. "You know who says don’t use Twitter?" Trump asked a campaign rally audience in August. "Your enemies.”