Trump has specifically stated that he prefers to broadcast the White House’s message himself, due to the fact that he too often sees his top aides and surrogates as incompetent and lacking. The White House reiterated on Monday that the president likes to use Twitter to circumvent a media it considers hostile and petty.
But White House officials themselves are now complaining that people are too focused on the president’s statements on what they concede is his preferred method of communication.
The latest missives over the last couple of days targeted London’s mayor, his own Justice Department, and may have made it harder for his travel ban to be implemented.
Still, his loyal band of advisers marched out of the White House to defend the president’s words by telling reporters to stop obsessing over the president’s words.
“It’s not policy. It’s not an executive order. It’s social media,” insisted deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka in a Monday interview with CNN after he was asked about a series of Trump tweets criticizing the mayor of London’s response to terrorist attacks in the city over the weekend killed seven and injured nearly 50 more.
In an NBC interview on Monday morning, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway dinged the American press’s “obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.”
The president’s activity on Twitter is hardly only an “obsession” of media outlets—in fact, it’s one of the few ways the president is actually changing how Washington works. Multiple lobbying firms in Washington, DC, have even hired new staff just to stay up all night monitoring Trump’s Twitter feed in case he targets their clients, according to a source familiar with the practice.
The current White House line on Trump’s tweets comes after months of unsuccessful attempts by Trump’s top advisers to rein in his caustic, factually challenged presence on Twitter, where Trump frequently undercuts his administration’s own legal and communications strategies.
Trump’s behavior and lashing out on Twitter has become such a hassle and burden for his senior staff that aides have brainstormed different possible strategies to curtail the political and professional damage he does online. One option considered in the White House involved having a group of lawyers review and vet President Trump’s tweets in advance, as The Wall Street Journal reported late last month, to ensure Trump wasn’t singlehandedly destroying his own administration’s case in court or elsewhere.
When asked by The Daily Beast this week if this plan had gone anywhere, a White House official simply messaged back, “LMFAO,” popular shorthand for “laughing my fucking ass off.” The floated idea to have a legal team screen Trump tweet has “not been moving forward,” according to this official with knowledge of the internal deliberations.
Asked whether his aides are still trying to get Trump’s Twitter presence under control, another exasperated White House official replied, “How do you suggest we do that exactly? This isn’t Intervention,” an apparent reference to the popular A&E reality-TV show.
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
On Monday, Trump’s tweeting habits dealt a blow to the administration's efforts to enforce a ban on immigration from six Muslim-majority nations. “I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” the president tweeted, directly contradicting White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s insistence that the measure is “not a travel ban.”
And just hours after Conway downplayed the relevance of president’s tweets, her husband, who was until recently in line to lead the Justice Department's civil division, laid out the consequences of those tweets for the administration’s efforts to uphold the travel ban.
“These tweets may make some ppl feel better, but they certainly won't help [the Justice Department] get 5 votes in SCOTUS, which is what actually matters. Sad,” George Conway wrote in his first tweet since 2015.
Neal Katyal, a former DOJ official now representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the travel ban, seemed giddy at the prospect of using the president’s own words—which have been invoked by judges who have temporarily blocked the measure—on his clients’ behalves. “Its [sic] 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!” Katyal wrote in a tweet.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a plaintiff in the suit, wrote it “may incorporate @realDonaldTrump's tweets about the ban into our Supreme Court argument.”
The president’s habit of actively painting himself into legal and political corners with his own tweets is a habit that no one in Trump’s inner circle—however frustrated or undermined they feel—expects him to stop, or alter to any significant degree.
It has become a running joke within the Trump administration that deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ most commonly uttered phrase is, “The tweet speaks for itself,” referencing how often she has to respond to reporters inquiring about Trump’s latest Twitter outburst.
At a White House press briefing on Monday afternoon, Sanders called Twitter “a very important tool” for a president with a deep hostility towards the press. “It gives him the ability to speak directly to the people without the bias of the media filtering those communications,” Sanders said.
But in his rush to get around those media outlets’ filter, Trump has often left his own staff in the lurch.
“That’s the way he likes to communicate,” a senior Trump administration official said. “That’s how he won the presidency in his mind. He’s able to dominate media coverage, it takes little to no effort for him to create national news. But for a comms staff it’s impossible to know how to get out ahead of things.”
The political and strategic ramifications of @realDonaldTrump are also very familiar territory for veterans of Trumps’ 2016 presidential run. One Trump campaign aide recalled lining up a series of surrogate hits on a Thursday. “It was gonna be perfect, we were gonna dominate coverage over the weekend,” the ex-aide said. Then Trump launched a Friday pre-dawn Twitter tirade about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, and suddenly practically every single press question was about his feud with Machado, which included the then Republican nominee urging his followers on Twitter to watch a nonexistent sex tape.
Nowadays, some members of the U.S. government are now in the positions of directly contradicting the president’s angry tweets. Over the weekend, after news broke of a deadly terror attack at the London Bridge, Trump took to Twitter to push for his blocked travel restrictions and “Muslim ban”—and to bash London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, by taking the mayor’s words completely out of context.
Still, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom Lewis Lukens dutifully tweeted on Sunday that “I commend the strong leadership of the @MayorofLondon as he leads the city forward after this heinous attack.”