Lots of people want President Donald Trump to stop tweeting. Mitch McConnell wants him to stop tweeting. Carly Fiorina wants him to stop tweeting. Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins and other Republican members of Congress and some Democrats in Congress and Jeb Bush and many of Trump’s advisers and attorneys and even some of his supporters (although not all of his supporters) want him to stop tweeting. His wife wants him to stop. A majority of business leaders want him to stop, and a majority of millennials, and a majority of voters, period. His tweeting, they all believe, is unseemly and incendiary, legally risky and chaotic, undiplomatic, demoralizing, destructive, and distracting, too—for everybody, but especially for Trump.
The people, though, who want Trump to keep tweeting are the people who rely on his words to do their jobs—reporters, biographers, political scientists and strategists, and presidential historians. They often are appalled by the content of the tweets, just plain weary like everybody else of the volume and pace of the eruptions and deeply worried about their consequences as well—but still, they say, the more Trump tweets, the better.
Trump’s Twitter timeline is the realest real-time expression of what he thinks, and how he thinks. From his brain to his phone to the world, the “unfiltered” stream of 140-character blurts makes up the written record with which Trump is most identified. “I think Twitter,” one White House official told POLITICO, “is his diary.”
It is, presidential historian Robert Dallek told me, “a kind of presidential diary.”
“A kind of live diary,” Princeton University political scientist Julian Zelizer said.
“His version of a diary,” said Douglas Brinkley, editor of The Reagan Diaries.
Many modern presidents have kept a diary of some sort—that no member of the public sees until long after the author has left the Oval Office. The White House didn’t respond to four requests for comment on whether Trump is following suit, but people who know him well say it’s all but impossible to imagine him sitting down with a pen and paper in a quiet moment. “Absolutely zero chance,” one of them said. In the presumed absence, then, of a more traditional version of the form, Trump’s collected tweets comprise the closest thing to a diary this presidency will produce. And that is what makes the messages from @realDonaldTrump, almost 800 and counting since January 20, 2017, such a prize to those who care the most about lasting insight into the president and this administration. If @realDonaldTrump was to go dark, and Trump stopped tweeting to his more than 32 million followers, humans and bots alike, the loss from a historical standpoint would be acute. What else would there be to memorialize the breathtaking bluntness of the 45th president of the United States? But can the nation weather the daily injury of Trump’s epistolary eye-pokes?
Diaries, presidential or otherwise, typically are private and contemplative, and Trump’s Twitter feed is on both counts aggressively the opposite. As a document, though, it’s invaluable—chronological, recurrent, instantly archived and intensely revealing. “Donald Trump doesn’t use Twitter to be reflective,” biographer Tim O’Brien said in an interview. “He uses it like a fire hose … like a battering ram. And that’s profoundly who he is.”
Ever since he set up his account with the social media service back in 2009, Trump has used Twitter to divert and to deflect, to frame and to float, according to George Lakoff, the linguist and cognitive scientist, and as a megaphone and as a weapon—a potent tool to promote himself and attack others, this reflexive, lifelong, one-two punch that makes Trump Trump. In this regard, his election and inauguration changed nothing. On vivid, visceral, nearly daily display are his most elemental, most animating character traits, in this most public, most concentrated way. He’s impulsive and undisciplined and obsessed with taking shots and settling scores and with the sustenance of an image of success even when it’s at utter odds with objective reality. He can never back down. He can never let go.
As president, he has used Twitter to pillory the press (“Fake … not Real,” “the enemy of the American People!”), baselessly accuse former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower during the campaign and rail away about leaks and “LEAKING” and “low-life leakers.” He has used it to denigrate the Affordable Care Act as “horrible,” “imploding” and “dead,” describe Democrats as “pathetic” “OBSTRUCTIONISTS” in spite of the fact that Republicans control Congress, and assail Chicago, Germany, Nordstrom, the federal judiciary and perceived opponents ranging from “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” to NBC’s “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd” to the mayor of London in the immediate aftermath of the recent terrorist attack in the British capital. And he has done so much of this in frenetic, mostly early-morning torrents replete with exclamation points, jammed-down caps-lock, an apparent indifference to the rules of spelling and grammar and in a by-now-familiar construction, a telling pattern of thought, a certain Trump-tameter—a usually one-sentence declaration, routinely factually shaky, followed by a usually one-word assertion of emotion. “Weak!” “Strong!” “WIN!” “Terrible!” “Sad!” “BAD!”
The Twitter feed is a rolling, thin-skinned, squint-eyed stew of shouted announcements, grudges and grievances, ravaging insecurities and overcompensating bluster. “The Twitter feed,” said Michael D’Antonio, author of Never Enough, in which he wrote of Trump’s “Twitter wars,” “is true Trump.”
He is how he tweets.
“We’re dealing with a psychologically damaged element here—feeling the need to express your anger and bitterness into the public arena without any consideration of the consequences,” Brinkley told me. And yet, even as he rebuked the tweeter, he extolled the merit of the tweets. Trump’s timeline, he said, “is probably the best window into Trump’s presidency.”
Maybe any presidency, argued Russell Riley, co-chair of the oral history program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for presidential scholarship. “You’re given a much more up-close look at his innate thought processes than I think you’ve gotten from any other president,” he said.
“I’m in favor of the material, and I’m in favor of the mechanism,” Princeton’s Zelizer added. “This is the era in which we live. Our diaries are public now.”
And that sheer publicness—the lack of discretion and restraint—is what makes this record so attractive to historians but simultaneously so perilous for Trump and the country he leads.
Where his staunchest supporters see evidence of say-anything, establishment-rattling, politically incorrect authenticity, others see reams of ammunition to wield against him. Trump has littered his feed with careless, self-defeating fodder—hyper-public utterances that have been used by judges to block his travel ban and digital pop-offs that constitute “a gold mine” for investigators into his or his campaign’s potential collusion with Russia and his rationale for firing “cowardly” James Comey from his position as the head of the FBI. Trump has suggested he might not have won in November if not for Twitter. “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here,” he told the Financial Times in April. But pulsing throughout the diary of @realDonaldTrump are the makings of “the quintessential Greek tragedy,” said Riley of the Miller Center. “Your strongest suit is also your greatest vulnerability.”
In the 228-year history of the American presidency, there’s never been anything remotely like Donald Trump’s Twitter timeline. But it’s nonetheless the latest adaptation of a longstanding portion of the records of the activities of the executive branch. President James K. Polk kept a detailed diary in the middle of the 19th century. In the middle of the 20th, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower kept diaries, “sporadically,” said Brinkley. Richard Nixon kept a comprehensive kind of audio diary, recording his conversations in the White House, which came back to bite him, of course. Jimmy Carter kept a diary, “by dictating my thoughts and observations several times each day,” he would write later. Ronald Reagan was a particularly committed keeper of a diary, writing entries in maroon, leather-bound, hardback books every day he was president except when he was in the hospital after getting shot in 1981. Bill Clinton enlisted the clandestine help of the historian Taylor Branch, calling him to the White House regularly to download his thoughts. Both George Bushes kept diaries. So did Obama. “The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions,” Obama told Time in 2012.
“It’s not unusual for presidents to record their thoughts in real time,” said Rhodes College political scientist Michael Nelson, who teaches a course on the presidency. “Most recent presidents, I think, they were going to write memoirs, knowing that’s a standard part of an ex-president’s playbook, so they realized that it’s a useful thing.”
Beyond that, said Mark Updegrove, an author and historian and the former director of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, many presidents find keeping a diary “cathartic” as they “wrestle with the enormous burdens that are endemic to the job.”
And Trump? Is he keeping …
“… a diary?” said Trump biographer Gwenda Blair. She snickered. “Get out.”
“I would be surprised, if not shocked,” Davidson College political scientist Susan Roberts said in an interview, “if you were to say to me, ‘Trump is keeping a diary.’”
What Trump is doing, however, and without a doubt, is creating a reliable, contemporaneous record of his telling and volatile thoughts. He is speaking at the same instant to history and to his base.
“It all begins today!” he tweeted at 7:31 the morning of the inauguration. “THE MOVEMENT CONTINUES …”
“We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth,” he added that afternoon. “… we will bring back our dreams!”
He then boasted about television ratings for the inauguration, vowed “a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD” in an election he had won and wrongly stated that the New York Times and the Washington Post were “failing” and “DISHONEST” and that the Times had apologized to readers for its Trump coverage. He called Chelsea Manning an “Ungrateful TRAITOR.” He called Graham and John McCain “sadly weak on immigration.” He called “what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world” “a horrible mess!” He told his followers there were a “lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” He encouraged them to watch TV interviews with him on ABC News and the Christian Broadcasting Network. “Enjoy!” “The American dream is back,” he declared. And that was 11 days in January.
In February, Trump tweeted that his proposed initial travel ban of people from seven Muslim-majority countries was about “keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of the country,” bashed the “so-called judge” who had ruled against it by saying his decision put America in “peril,” called the developing Russia story “made up” “non-sense” and said the “real scandal” was “classified information” being leaked “like candy.” He chastised the “blind hatred” of the “FAKE NEWS media” that he labeled “a great danger to our country.” And he made a pronouncement that really was an admission—that the distinction in his mind between news that’s real and news that’s “fake” hinges on whether or not it makes him look good. On whether it helps him or hurts him. “Any negative polls are fake news,” he proclaimed. “I call my own shots,” he said, ridding everybody of any iota of lingering doubt.
In March, he raged about Obamacare (“complete and total disaster”) and the Russia story (“witch hunt!”), alleged the Obama wiretapping (“McCarthyism!”), cajoled uncooperative lawmakers by calling them out by name, floated the notion of changing libel laws and retweeted a sycophant who had said, “Trump always ends up being right. It’s almost a little freaky.”
And in April, May and so far in June, with the coming and going of his first 100 days in office with few legislative accomplishments, the intensification of the Russia investigation, his stunning firing of Comey, the appointment of a special counsel, continued legal setbacks to his travel ban and record disapproval ratings, Trump’s tweeting has grown even more fevered.
“He’s the Samuel Pepys of incontinent Twitter spewing,” said GOP strategist Rick Wilson, referring to the noted 17th-century English diarist.
“The Twitter feed,” Blair said, “is an absolutely accurate picture of who he is.”
“People have accused him of being a bully,” said Roberts of Davidson, “and you can just look at his Twitter.”
The deluge of tweets from Trump, Princeton’s Zelizer said, “create this window directly to the president.” In his estimation, the timeline shows someone “consumed with his opponents,” “someone who can see victory all the time, even if it contradicts reality,” someone who “doesn’t take loss or challenge very well,” someone who’s “not thinking through necessarily the consequences of what he’s doing,” and “someone who’s not cautious.”
“The image you get,” he continued, “is of a person sitting there just frenetically responding to things.”
Brinkley agrees overall with this assessment of a reckless, agitated Trump on Twitter—“to have a proofreader, in his mind, would be to castrate him,” he told me—but the historian and professor at Rice University also has detected an odd “echo” connecting Reagan’s handwritten entries from the ‘80s and Trump’s finger-punched missives of today. The image-conscious former entertainer focused more on how he was seen than on what he had done (like Trump), and journalists clearly weren’t his favorite people (instead of “FAKE NEWS,” Reagan called them “irresponsible,” “demagogic” and a “lynch mob”); while Reagan smarted from criticism, he didn’t dwell on it, not so Trump-like at all. “Reagan was a much sunnier diarist,” Brinkley explained, whereas “Trump is a dark tweeter”—but Reagan, too, was consistent, made ample use of abbreviations and didn’t always have perfect spelling (“familys,” for instance, instead of families), and he was a proponent of brevity, quick fragments, a few sentences, sometimes no more than a paragraph per day. “If I called a book The Collected Tweets of Donald Trump, it would look very much like The Reagan Diaries,” Brinkley said. “Trump’s tweets are sort of the R-rated version.”
In the wake of Watergate, and especially in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, when a judge granted a request to subpoena portions of Reagan’s private diaries, presidents became more careful about making audio recordings, dictated recollections or written diaries—or at least have refrained from copping to it publicly while they’re still in office. Presidents’ diaries, after all, are private—until they’re not. “It’s a question that you can fight and litigate,” the Miller Center’s Riley told me. “There’s not an absolute privilege to keep stuff out of the public domain. So by the time you get to the post-Reagan presidents, people are afraid to write anything down.” Said Brinkley of the diaries of modern presidents: “If a president is keeping one, it doesn’t make any sense to be billboarding it.” About their diaries, keeping them, definitely talking about them, presidents have gotten “skittish,” Brinkley said.
It’s perhaps the last word one would use to describe Trump’s use of Twitter.
“I love Twitter and tweeting,” he told Fox News in August 2015.
“Don’t worry,” he said in a speech in Rhode Island in April 2016. “I’ll give it up after I’m president. We won’t tweet anymore. I don’t know. Not presidential.”
But after he secured the nomination of the Republican Party, he seemed to be reconsidering. “You know who says don’t use Twitter? Your enemies,” he said in a speech in Ohio last August. “Why wouldn’t I use it? Why wouldn’t I?”
And once he won in November, evidently electorally immune from a campaign-long litany of words and actions that defied political convention and general decorum, peaking with audio of him bragging that he could get away with sexual assault on account of his celebrity, Trump clearly decided against the necessity of such discretion.
“I’ll keep it,” he said to a reporter from the Sunday Times of London the week before his inauguration. “It’s working.”
Or was. Over the past month-plus, though, Trump has created for himself with his tweeting a minefield of problems. His May 12 tweet about Comey and “tapes”—“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”—sparked the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s meddling in the election. And his fuming over the to-this-point courts-stopped travel ban—“Travel Ban,” “TRAVEL BAN,” “TRAVEL BAN!”—has been cited by courts in decisions that have gone against him and his administration. After the horrifying congressional baseball practice shooting prompted a sane, staid, sympathetic tweet about gravely injured Rep. Steve Scalise, Trump slept some, woke up and reverted to mean: “phony collusion,” “phony story,” “single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history—led by some very bad and conflicted people!” “Sad!” Most politicians, and certainly most presidents, know when to shut up—even when they want to lash out. Not Trump.
“To think he’s as undisciplined as the president of the United States as he was as president of the Trump Organization,” a close former employee told me, “is mind-boggling.”
“He’s creating legal vulnerabilities for himself,” Riley said.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword for Donald Trump,” Brinkley said. “What made him president might also be his undoing.”
“If he believes Twitter was his springboard to the White House,” biographer O’Brien added, “he’s going to have to come to terms with the fact that it could also be a trapdoor.”
Can a person tweet the way Trump tweets as president and be successful as president? Can a person tweet the way Trump tweets as president and stay president?
“Yes,” said Nelson, the political scientist from Rhodes, admittedly chastened in his predictions by the knowledge that he was, along with many, many others, “wrong about Trump at every stage,” from June 16, 2015 to November 8, 2016. “I think,” Nelson said, “Donald Trump can keep tweeting the way he’s tweeting and stay president …” He paused and considered what to say next. “But he’s playing with fire.” Nelson likened Trump as a politician—Trump as the president—to, “like, the first guy, the first human, to use fire.” So helpful—so dangerous. Did his cave fill with smoke? Did he get burned? How badly?
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.
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