President Donald Trump sure loves Twitter. Social media, including Twitter, if used properly and well, can be valuable tools for world leaders. If not, these tools can cause a lot of headaches, if not something worse, for them. Trump’s fascination with and addiction to Twitter seems to fall in the latter category.
Sure, Trump does use Twitter to highlight his meetings, new legislation and executive orders, and his pet political causes. Unfortunately, he also uses Twitter for a whole lot more than that. He fairly constantly wields his Twitter account to demonize the left, the media, and other domestic opponents. Trump’s recent and much-publicized spat with Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski is only the latest example of his reckless use of Twitter. This fiasco is fairly instructive of the perils of Trump using twitter for ill-conceived ends.
So what happened? It’s sufficient to say that Trump, on Thursday, irked by what he perceived as unfair reporting and analysis by Scarborough and Brzezinski, tweeted unflattering remarks about both Joe and Mika, including a misogynist one on Mika, possibly lied about an interaction between him and Joe and Mika, and criticized Morning Joe’s television ratings. (See here and here.) Trump’s tweets, as many do, received a firestorm of attention, to the point that they were discussed and defended in the daily press briefing by Sarah Huckabee Sanders—which caused another round of scorn heaped on the White House. And as for Scarborough and Brzezinski, they kept the story alive by jointly penning an editorial in The Washington Post and debating and criticizing Trump’s tweets the next day on their show. Never to let the other side get the last punch, Trump has continued to tweet about Scarborough and Brzezinski, thereby giving further life to a decidedly negative story that can only hurt himself politically. For instance, he tweeted Friday and Saturday about Joe and Mika and their show, going so far as to call Brzezinski “dumb as a rock.”
Trump thinks he’s defending himself and picking up political points in the process, by putting the “liberal media” in its place. But this is extraordinarily short-sighted. His incendiary tweets, and the Morning Joe debacle in particular, come at a great cost—to him, his political standing and agenda, US institutions, and American society more generally.
So what’s the fallout of his Twitter feud with Morning Joe? Here are several things that immediately come to mind.
1. It highlights the incompetence of not only Trump, but his staff. After all, what kind of a president engages in name calling with journalists on social media? This behavior is usually observed from tweens these days; we don’t expect this from the leader of the so-called free world. As a result, it also renews speculation—as wild it may be—about his mental state and his fitness for the presidency. Additionally, Huckabee Sanders willingly defended the indefensible. In her press briefing, she defended Trump’s tweets and then placed blame on “the liberal media” for constantly criticizing Trump.
2. Attacking the media and journalists only incentivizes them to press harder on Trump regarding his shady business deals, nepotism in the White House, Russiagate, and so on, which only makes life more difficult—not easier—for him.
3. The Morning Joe tweets caused Republican and Democratic Congresspersons to unite publicly in their frustrations with Trump’s coarse rhetoric—taking this situation out of the land of partisanship. Hence, Trump suffered political blowback from the right and left.
4. Did Trump try to coerce, or even blackmail, journalists? That’s exactly what Joe and Mika stated in their Friday Morning Joe discussion of Trump’s tweets. Reportedly, Trump offered to pull some strings to scrap a sordid story on Scarborough and Brzezinski from being published in the National Enquirer. If true, this raises all sorts of questions—legal, as well as moral and ethical. Moreover, does this mean that Trump has another media outlet (besides Fox News) doing his bidding? And was he behind the infamous 2016 Enquirer story that linked Senator and then-GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?
5. Why is Trump so preoccupied with domestic critics--in fact much more than with the host of complex national security threats and issues the US faces nowadays? Is it simply because he’s a narcissist? Or does he have massive political skeletons in his closet that he wishes remain hidden?
6. Trump’s comments on Brzezinski are likely another window into his thinking about women. Throughout his public life, Trump has a long history making of harsh, misogynist remarks about women—about their intellect, their looks, etc. He’s brushed them off, saying that they were largely made for entertainment purposes. That, in itself, is rather revealing. And his tweets on Mika also expose a very weird obsession with women and bleeding. This first came to light with his post-debate comments on Megyn Kelly. I’m not sure and don’t feel qualified to say what we should make of Trump’s bizarre bleeding comments. That said, I encourage you to look at two recent articles on this topic from The Atlantic and Daily Beast.
7. Trump’s persistent needling and attacking of the media only entrenches preexisting negatively held beliefs about “the liberal media” and “liberal journalists” within his base. Regardless of Trump, maybe these folks would never watch CNN or MSNBC or read The Washington Post or The New York Times. Perhaps. But Trump is ensuring that they never will. But what’s worse, he’s pushing his followers toward pro-Trump fringe outlets like Infowars and Breitbart, which only further fuels the polarization and extremism endemic in US politics today.
This post, so far, has focused only on the domestic repercussions of Trump’s rash, rude, and often vulgar tweets. The sad reality is that Trump’s tweeting also has foreign policy implications. Leftist talking heads and social media types lament that Trump’s tweets could trigger an international war. You may recall his brash, at times unprovoked, tweets on Taiwan, China, North Korea, etc. and the angry responses from officials from these countries, and so it seems there’s a grain of truth in this worry. But wars over Twitter are highly unlikely. The good news is that even if Trump is as dopey as he sometimes seems—and that’s not a given, mind you—other world leaders, by and large, aren’t, especially those in other great power nations. And they aren’t likely to go to war, expending blood and treasure and domestic political capital, over idle words on social media.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Trump’s tweets—yes, even his domestic-focused ones—don’t have a foreign policy consequences. Indeed, Nada Bakos, a former US intelligence officer, recently wrote a thorough, outstanding piece for The Washington Post on this very topic. Bakos argues that Trump’s Twitter account provides foreign actors with ample information—information that’s free, requires almost zero effort to procure, and can be accessed and analyzed in real time.
In particular, she writes: “Trump’s tweets offer plenty of material for analysis. His frequent strong statements in reaction to news coverage or events make it appear as if he lacks impulse control. In building a profile of Trump, an analyst would offer suggestions on how foreign nations could instigate stress or deescalate situations, depending on what type of influence they may want to have over the president.” Further, Trump’s Twitter reveals that he’s quick to anger, easy to flatter, and sensitive about the ongoing Russia investigations. What does this all mean? Put simply, Bakos claims, Trump is actively signaling to the world how foreign actors can gain leverage over him, and by extension the US. He’s telling the world the various pressure points—whether on policy issues or his thin-skinned personality—they can wield to their advantage.
Moreover, even banal things on Trump’s Twitter page can aid foreign actors. For instance, Bakos writes: “Analysts can glean information about Trump’s sleep patterns from the time of day or night when he tweets, showing which topics keep him up, his stress level and his state of mind. Twitter also often reveals what Trump is watching on TV and when, as well as what websites he turns to for news and analysis. Knowing this can be useful for foreign governments when they are planning media events or deciding where to try to seek coverage of their version of world events.”
This is deeply concerning. Trump is placing the US in a potentially horrible position. Not only could Trump be compromised by Russia as a result of possible shenanigans involving him and his staff, he might well be a disadvantaged and disempowered president globally because of his near-constant tweeting. Trump has created an environment in which he can be manipulated to the detriment of US national security, political, and economic interests. Even more troubling, there's no easy solution to this mess. Yes, his staffers want him to forgo his personal Twitter account and let them post as needed using the official @POTUS Twitter handle. But Trump firmly believes he receives tangible political benefits from avoiding the mainstream media and communicating directly to his millions of followers through social media. And another obstacle here is Trump's prickly, obstinate personality: he's not one to back down easily or admit defeat, even if the stakes are small, like the use of his personal Twitter account. Given these variables, it's difficult to envision him changing his Twitter habits.