When candidate Donald Trump waged a Twitter war against Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who rebuked him from the stage of the Democratic National Convention, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were sent in for a “tough-love talk” about the efficacy of the tweets, two former campaign officials recalled.
Controlling potentially damaging tweets was a job left mostly to the legal team in the early days of the administration. Marc Kasowitz, a former Trump attorney, and Jay Sekulow, a current member of the president’s legal team, gave Trump one simple rule to guide his tweeting habit: Don’t comment online about the Russia investigation. “The message was, tweet about policy, tweet about politics, but don’t attack the special counsel,” recalled another former aide.
None of the advice seemed to have any lasting effect on a president who views acting on his own impulses as a virtue. And these days, the staff has basically stopped trying: There is no character inhabiting the West Wing who is dispatched to counsel the president when he aims the powerful weapon of his Twitter feed at himself.
On Thursday night, Trump appeared to do just that.
After keeping silent for more than a week about mounting sexual misconduct allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, the president weighed in on the sexual harassment claim against Democratic Sen. Al Franken — a pair of tweets that drove a late-night news cycle but were greeted internally at the White House with a shrug and a yawn.
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?” he tweeted. “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?” The president was referencing a joke Franken once suggested, in his previous life as a “Saturday Night Live” writer, about raping the “60 Minutes” correspondent.
The tweet appeared to open up a major vulnerability for a president with his own “caught on camera” moment that almost tanked his presidential bid — the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about kissing and groping women without their consent.
But White House aides and friends saw it as in line with Trump’s tendency to go on offense — and accuse other people of the very acts he himself is guilty of. “When he sees an opportunity to hit, he will hit,” said one White House official.
Another former administration official said the attack on Franken was par for the course of a “White House with a sub-40 job approval rating with a tough midterm cycle ahead. It doesn’t matter if there are vulnerabilities on their own side: They’re going to take anything they can get.”
The late-night tweet was not, however, without consequences — especially landing in the midst of a fraught moment in which the country is reckoning with stories from women reporting unwanted sexual advances from powerful men in politics, media and Hollywood. It meant the White House had to spend a day fielding questions about why Franken, and not the president, should be investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct.
“Sen. Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the president hasn’t,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained at Friday’s briefing, highlighting why the situations were different. “I think this was covered pretty extensively during the campaign. We addressed that then. The American people, I think, spoke very loud and clear when they elected this president.”
Earlier in the day, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was dispatched to Fox News to try and explain away the inconsistency of weighing in on Franken while keeping mum about Moore. “Al Franken was a brand new news story yesterday, and the president weighed in as he does on the news of the day often enough,” she said. “The Roy Moore story is eight days old and the president put out a statement during his Asia trip on that.”
Some Republicans have expressed concern that chief of staff John Kelly doesn’t try to control the president’s Twitter feed, which often distracts from enacting his legislative agenda. “Someone, I read the other day, said we all just react to the tweets,” Kelly told reporters traveling with the president in Vietnam last week. “We don’t. I don’t. I don’t allow the staff to. Believe it or not, I do not follow the tweets.”
But Kelly’s strategy makes sense to the people who have been around Trump the longest, and who have seen that the talks and guidelines never succeeded in holding back the flood of the president’s opinions for long.
Trump lasted only until mid-June when — against the advice of his attorneys and amid news reports that a grand jury had approved the first charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — he went all caps in his anger. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA,” he tweeted on June 15.
Last March, Trump accused President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, while offering no evidence to back up the incendiary allegation. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Those are considered some of the high-water marks of self-destructive Trump tweets, compared with which the Franken fracas could be seen as a forgettable sideshow.
But while the White House sought to downplay the significance of Trump’s tweet about Franken, some allies said dredging up a conversation about the women who have accused Trump of sexual assault could backfire on a president who is desperate to hang onto his base.
“I know a lot of women who held their nose and voted for the guy because they thought Hillary Clinton is a criminal,” said one person close to the administration. “This just reminds them that they had to hold their nose and vote for him, and they won’t do it again because he won’t be running against Clinton.”
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