On Wednesday morning, the president of the United States was condemned by 10 Downing Street and praised by David Duke.
Those responses—inconceivable for any other White House occupant prior—came after a series of angry tweets and retweets, in which President Donald J. Trump promoted explicit anti-Muslim propaganda, floated a conspiracy theory about MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, called for the sacking of his enemies at NBC, and potentially undermined his own “travel ban” case to the delight of plaintiffs currently suing the administration.
Even an Infowars editor thought it was a bit much, calling out “Trump's Twitter account” for its “not great optics.”
All this happened before 10:30 a.m. ET — an active morning for anyone on Twitter, let alone a president dealing with tax reform and another North Korean missile launch. And it raises yet another series of questions over whether Trump’s inability to curb his social media appetite is compromising his capacity to do his job effectively.
Over the past few weeks, Trump appears increasingly consumed by conspiracy theories, with The New York Times reporting that he still privately pushes the racist smear that President Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud, and has been casting doubt on the authenticity of the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape that a year ago he publicly admitted was real.
These sentiments from Trump remain private. In public, however, he has been consumed with red meat clickbait and petty feuds, such as his ongoing spat with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, whom he all but accused of complicity in the death of an intern in another Wednesday morning tweet.
What set Wednesday’s digital outbursts apart is that they had the potential to spark far more serious international and diplomatic disputes. What aides call Trump being Trump, ex-security officials who monitored white extremism consider borderline incitement against Muslims.
Trump thrice retweeted Jayda Fransen, a leader of the group Britain First, sending social media alight with criticism from those likening the right-wing nationalist organization to U.S. based hate groups. Within hours of the retweets, Fransen hailed the apparent endorsement in an all-caps tweet declaring, “GOD BLESS YOU TRUMP! GOD BLESS AMERICA!” An hour or so later, Britain First’s Facebook page had changed its cover photo to a picture of a Trump rally.
Fransen claimed in one of the tweets promoted by Trump that an accompanying video showed a “Muslim migrant beat[ing] up [a] Dutch boy on crutches.” But the Dutch site responsible for the video said in a post responding to Trump’s Twitter activity that it had tracked down the perpetrator, and he “was not a Muslim, let alone a migrant, but simply a Dutchman.”
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and failed U.S. Senate candidate, didn’t bother with that nuance before praise Trump for tweeting out the videos: “Thank God for Trump! That's why we love him!”
The White House itself seemed undeterred. "Whether it's a real video, the threat is real,” press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Wednesday morning. “His goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”
Sanders did not respond to additional questions from The Daily Beast on Wednesday morning regarding, for instance, if the president was aware of the controversy surrounding Britain First, if Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino had anything to do with this.
But the English government did weigh in. Prime Minister Theresa May’s office called Trump’s tweets “wrong” and said Britain First “seeks to divide communities through their use of hateful narratives which peddle lies and stoke tensions.”
While traditional Trump allies expressed their shock or displeasure (notably, former CNN host Piers Morgan) others came to his defense, albeit while not always directly addressing the contents of the tweets themselves.
“If you’re hoping for a President who tweets only puppies and posies, you’re going to be disappointed,” Michael Caputo, a Republican operative and former Trump campaign hand, texted The Daily Beast. “My President is an unvarnished brawler, deconstructing the administrative state, telling it like it is - and sometimes offending delicate sensibilities. Strap in.”
One former White House official said that, at this point, “people in the White House understand that the president is the president. And he’s not a typical politician, he’s not someone who’s going to be controlled by a West Wing bureaucracy.”
The former Trump official added that “the standard operating procedure [in these cases] is, for most people working in the White House, to just roll with the punches. You get used to it. And if you’re going to have any longevity working there, you don’t melt down when he starts tweeting.”
Indeed, few people inside the White House seemed to express much concern over the president’s tweets on Wednesday; perhaps because they’ve grown calloused to these missives or perhaps because the message reflected an animosity to Islam that has found voice among some inside the White House itself. Britain First’s hardline stance against Muslim immigration has placed it in line with previous messaging from the Trump White House, in particular former counterterrorism aide Sebastian Gorka, a frequent Islam critic. In May, Paul Golding, the head of Britain First, promoted Gorka’s comments about ISIS on his personal website. During the presidential campaign last year, Britain First also promoted Gorka’s claim that President Barack Obama had been a “godsend” for ISIS.
Breitbart News, the right-wing website run by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, has reciprocated with generally sympathetic coverage. The site defended Britain First after the 2016 murder of MP Jo Cox by an individual who allegedly shouted some variation of “Britain first” before shooting her.
Outside of the West Wing and Breitbart headquarters, Trump’s tweets set off alarms. Daryl Johnson, the former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) analyst, who in 2009 warned of a rising tide in far-right extremism— and lost his job for it— warned that Trump was gambling with U.S. Muslims lives and safety.
“Whenever he retweets these white nationalist, anti Semitic or anti-Muslim messages, it plays right into these extremist groups, and it emboldens them into thinking they have tacit support from the White House to conduct criminal acts,” Johnson said.
It’s not just his tweets, either. Johnson said that Trump’s policy proposals, from the border wall to the anti-Muslim travel ban to his “mass deportation of immigrants and Dreamers,” were all extremist narratives seen “on white-supremacist message boards a decade ago, and now they’re being mainstreamed by the current administration.”
Mohamed Elibiary, a former DHS adviser who received the 2011 FBI public service award from then-Director Robert Mueller, said he thought most white Americans were too “committed to the rule of law” to act on such incitement. But that didn’t wash away the impact of Trump’s promotion.
“The indirect consequence of such political radicalization efforts by President Trump will be the increased potential for lone wolf actions by white extremists upon innocent Americans they perceive as Muslim,” Elibiary told The Daily Beast. Trump’s Twitter spree, he added, “continue[s] his shameful pattern of radicalizing and mainstreaming white identity politics into a heightened grievance state. The psychological end result of this kind of messaging, demonizing the other and framing the nation as under attack by this other identity, was on full display in Rwanda a couple of decades ago.”