They come without warning, and spread wreckage and confusion around the globe.
At American intelligence agencies, they have decimated morale, according to a government official with ties to that community. Key officers who made personal sacrifices because of their love of country are sprucing up their résumés in preparation of jumping to the more lucrative private sector. In the field, agents are finding a growing reticence among overseas sources to continue taking personal risks to provide information to the United States about activities by foreign governments.
In South Korea, they have boosted feelings of security, officials there have confided to contacts in the United States. The American government, they believe, will soon take much stronger action in response to North Korea’s repeated flouting of United Nations resolutions calling for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program and halt ballistic missile tests.
For Alec Baldwin, they have increased his fame worldwide. They have informed people who pay no attention to TV that ratings for the Celebrity Apprentice reality show have fallen. For some on Wall Street, one executive told Newsweek, they have created a new strategy betting on “Trump slumps,” in which traders watch television news reports for a corporate development that might anger Donald Trump and then, in hopes he will tweet mean things, enter short-term trades where they would profit if the company’s stock price falls.
All of these extraordinary events are the result of government by Twitter, a bizarre new world where an internet communications platform combines with an impulsive president-elect to create global chaos in investment markets, overseas halls of power and domestic agencies. In the morning or afternoon or the middle of night, Trump delivers 140-character proclamations on policy and piffle in arbitrary flashes of power and spite that shoot across the virtual firmament without warning. Discussions and debates about their content in the news media and on the internet follow for a few hours—Why can’t flag burning be banned? Why is a new Air Force One being built?—before moving on, unresolved, to another Trump topic d’Tweet.
Many presidents have used technology to communicate directly to the citizenry. Franklin D. Roosevelt had what became known as his first “fireside chat” over the radio in March 1933, during a time of great fear about the health of U.S. banks. Dwight Eisenhower conducted the first televised presidential news conferences. Ronald Reagan boasted of going straight to the people in televised speeches when he believed Congress was holding up his agenda. And Barack Obama used social media, including Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. But all of these methods of reaching the public directly were designed to instill confidence or push for particular legislation, not to attack Saturday Night Live for lampooning Trump or actresses like Meryl Streep for criticizing him at the Golden Globes. (Imagine for a moment Reagan proclaiming to the nation that Trump was an “overrated, failing businessman. Sad!” in 1987, when the New York developer criticized the president’s foreign policy and questioned his depth of knowledge.)
Trump’s seemingly uncontrollable tweeting was a prominent part of his life long before he began his latest bid for the White House. But throughout the campaign, his Twitter obsession struck even his allies as bizarre as he tweeted repeated attacks on the parents of an American soldier killed in combat, the news media and almost anyone who criticized him publicly. The worst came when he relentlessly tweeted insults at a former Miss Universe who had criticized him for degrading her when he ran that beauty contest; the flurry of almost maniacal tweets, tapped out on his mobile phone when most of the rest of America was asleep, once again led to questions about whether Trump had the self-control to be president. But Trump promised repeatedly through the campaign that his behavior online would change if he won the election. “I'm going to do very restrained, if I use it at all, I'm going to do very restrained,” Trump told 60 Minutes in November about his Twitter account.
That pretense is gone—from November 11 through January 12, Trump sent out 315 tweets, including retweets. Rather than cutting back on tweeting, members of his staff have said Trump will use Twitter to avoid the filter of the mainstream media.
Unfortunately, Trump seems to have no filter for himself, tweeting out statements that cause vast damage before he even has sufficient information to know if he’s right. For example, the current problems in the intelligence community with personnel and overseas sources resulted in large part from Trump’s repeated attacks on the competence and integrity of those civilian and military agencies. However, he banged out his attacks on their professionalism and their conclusions about Russian hacking without sitting down for an extended briefing on their findings. When a briefing was postponed for two days, he sent out a tweet with sarcastic quote marks around “intelligence” then added, “perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”
Then he had his briefing. After weeks of attacking the intelligence professionals by promoting statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Trump conceded in a press conference on January 11 that he now believed Russia was behind hacking that interfered with the American presidential election. But no matter—before the press conference, Trump tweeted out an accusation that the intelligence community had leaked a dossier of information put together by nongovernment private investigators, accusing the agencies of behaving like Nazis. Before tweeting his insults of the intelligence agencies, Trump seems not to have considered that the most likely parties to have leaked the memos were private parties—including one publicly identified as being engaged in opposition research of him.
Other Trump tweets signaled an improved direction in particular policies over those of the Obama administration—maybe. The problem is, with what appear to be comments on something like foreign affairs mixed in with attacks on actors in the musical Hamilton, it is impossible to know if Trump is giving a considered argument reflecting the direction of his administration based on input from experts, or is just reacting to something he read on a cereal box.
One example: In a tweet on North Korea, Trump may have been trying to accomplish something, or simply may have been trying to sound tough. On January 2, he typed, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!”
The tweet could be an act of diplomatic brilliance or misinformed nonsense. Kim Jong Un, the dictatorial leader of North Korea, is renowned for bragging about his country possessing abilities it doesn’t, and this was one of those instances. Pyongyang has gotten no further than testing intermediate range missiles, which have failed in seven out of eight tests. Those missiles—if they even worked—could not make it half the distance between North Korea and the continental United States; they would even miss reaching Hawaii by about 1,500 miles. So North Korea is nowhere close to being able to reach the United States with a nuclear device, and the statement was just another one of Kim’s saber-rattling-without-a-saber. So if Trump was taking North Korea’s boast seriously and just combatting a bellicose statement with a bellicose tweet, that was silly.
On the other hand, if Trump’s statement was thought out rather than impulsive, it was shrewd. One of the biggest foreign policy failures of the Obama administration has been how it has dealt with North Korea’s missile tests, an approach that could be called “speak loudly and carry no stick.” Despite dozens of tests by Pyongyang—each a violation of the U.N. resolutions—Obama did almost nothing in response. That approach, experts say, emboldened Kim and led to fears among South Korean officials that the United States might not be willing to defend their nation against a North Korean attack.
Trump’s tweet changed that, and now the South Koreans have told at least one American adviser who spoke to Newsweek anonymously so as not to damage his relationship with officials there that they are cautiously optimistic the president-elect plans to aggressively confront the North. “He had the right kind of response to North Korea,” says Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation. “The question he has to face is, is he really going to make [North Korea’s missile tests] a major issue, and if he does, what is he going to do to try to prevent [them] from happening.”
If he chose, Trump could take very strong actions. The United States could push Beijing to control Kim by refusing to do business with any Chinese company that also does business in North Korea. (That, of course, runs the risk of setting off a trade war.) Or he could simply warn Pyongyang that the United States is prepared to shoot down any missiles North Korea tests. China would strongly oppose that, but a Trump administration could tell officials there to force their North Korean allies to stop or the United States will stop them instead. Then, of course, if China balks and Kim tests American resolve, Trump would have to follow through on his threat, an action that would never be condemned by the U.N. since he would be doing nothing more than enforcing its resolution.
Or, the tweet meant nothing, and Trump was just impulsively reacting to something he heard without any consideration of long-term policy and with no understanding of Kim’s long-term habit of bogus blathering. South Korean officials believe that no one ascending to the American presidency would just blithely tweet out such an aggressive statement without thought, so they are certain Trump plans to have stronger policies regarding North Korea. But in truth, there is no way to tell what has meaning and what doesn’t in his 315 tweets since the election.
Newsweek sorted Trump’s 315 tweets since the election, November 9 to January 12, into 16 categories, including domestic policy, foreign policy, announcements of schedule and post-event comments, attacks, self-congratulations, Cabinet issues and a number of others. (Some tweets fell into multiple categories and different reviewers may have assigned them differently.) By any measure, the largest number of tweets—63—were whining: complaining that certain news organizations or reports were dishonest, that people weren’t congratulating him for something he had done, that interview times with his campaign staff were too short, and generally grousing about unfairness to him.
The second largest group included announcements of upcoming events and his reactions to them. A different analyst might consider this one packed with too many disparate items: It includes announcements of media and victory tour appearances, then thanks to either the reporter or the people who showed up for his rally. Still, under this definition, Trump has tweeted on this topic 42 times. Tweets of general news—such as sending best wishes to the victims of fires, economic updates and announcements of plans by companies to keep jobs in America—totaled 40.
Some of the company and economic announcements are counted in the category of bragging or self-celebration when Trump takes credit for them. (That includes a tweet in which he announced a rise in the Consumer Confidence Index, which he ended by addressing himself in the third person, “Thanks Donald!”) Combined with a variety of other tweets of braggadocio, the total amount in this category is 27, including a now-deleted tweet in which Trump falsely boasted that all the dress shops in Washington, D.C., were sold out of gowns because of his inauguration.
Also coming in at 27: insults. These are the attacks on various individuals and organizations, such as Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep and an Indiana union official who contradicted Trump’s claims about the number of jobs saved after the Carrier Corporation decided to keep some of its operations in Indiana rather than moving them to Mexico. The insult he seems to enjoy the most is calling someone or something “overrated,” such as when he attacked Streep, one of America’s greatest actresses, who criticized him in her speech at the Golden Globes.
Then, with a very generous interpretation of what constitutes foreign affairs, are Trump’s 25 tweets in that category. Some insults against the United Nations were counted here, as were vague comments about other countries. Defenses against accusations that he benefited from Russian interference in the election—or criticisms of the intelligence agencies that concluded Moscow had engaged in that effort—are not included. But important tweets, such as the one about North Korea, fit into this category, as do his many tweets about security for Israel. Very few of these tweets address actual policy, however, and some border on bragging, such as when he urged Israel to hang on because he would soon be in office. Some of the tweets set off unnecessary international tensions, such as on December 4, when Trump launched a twitter attack on China, when nothing was happening in the news that might have sparked his tirade. The tweets suggested a fundamental lack of knowledge about some topics, such as when he attacked China for devaluing its currency even though its value has been rising for months.
China’s state-owned papers—which Beijing officials often use to indirectly respond to foreign complaints—reacted in fury. Trump “threw a tantrum against China Sunday night,” wrote the Global Times. “It appears inevitable that Sino-US ties will witness more troubles in his early time in the White House than any other predecessor.… Trump can make a lot of noise but that does not exempt him from the rules of the major power game. He doesn’t have sufficient resources to deal with China wantonly, the second largest economy, the biggest trading country and a nuclear power.”
Perhaps it’s bluster, but Trump’s purposeless Twitter war against China could make the trade negotiations he wants to conduct far more difficult—or undermine them completely. China has never responded well to insults, and the more Trump exposes his lack of understanding of Sino-American diplomacy, the less open to discussions Beijing is likely to be.
But foreign affairs only racked up one tweet more than Trump’s rehashing of the election. Those 26 tweets sometimes whine—such as when he falsely said he would have won the popular vote except for the millions of illegally cast ballots—but many of them reflect what seems to be either an overarching insecurity, poor sportsmanship, or a need to proclaim his brilliance. As late as January 6—two months after the election—Trump was still insulting the Hillary Clinton campaign, claiming they didn’t recognize the passion of his voters until it was too late. Yes, two weeks before his inauguration, while skipping intelligence briefings and refusing to hold any press conferences, Trump was still bashing Clinton.
Coming in at eighth place in the categories with 17 tweets is holiday wishes—Merry Christmas, happy New Year and the like. In ninth place, with 16 tweets, comes one of the only relevant topics for a president-elect: information about his Cabinet selections.
Trump tweeted 14 times about domestic policy, but once again the topics seemed to pop out of nowhere and at times had swift, negative impact on the stock prices of individual companies. He declared that people who burn flags should perhaps lose their citizenship (a suggestion that violates several parts of the Constitution), then didn’t mention the idea again.
The rest of his tweets from this period are a mish-mash. The conflicts of interest between his presidential duties and his family business merited six tweets, praise of individual supporters five, and an assortment of other items that don’t fit any particular category round it all out.
All of these numbers give the closest reads on the mind of one of the most secretive president-elects in history. He has released no tax returns, no business information and has no public policy record. He has given only one press conference, which descended into pandemonium with very little information conveyed. So, for the world to judge how Trump views his presidency, his tweets are the best window, particularly since he plans to continue using Twitter to communicate with the public. And what they show is a man who is more concerned with vengeance than domestic policy, with complaining more than foreign affairs, with bragging more than with his own Cabinet. They reveal a scattershot mind that seems unable to focus on any topic. His future tweets could be a powerful force in his presidency, or a self-indulgent storm of nonsense that impedes his presidency.
Tweeting is not leading. If Trump wants to think about how to proceed with his public communications, he might look at the precedents established by former Republican presidents. (He would not likely care much about what Democrats did.) George W. Bush held innumerable press conferences as president-elect, including a number with his Cabinet nominees so that the public could learn who they are and what they believed; Trump’s nominees have, until the Senate confirmation hearings began, remained hidden behind the president-elect’s veil of secrecy.
Or better yet, Trump should just look to Reagan. On January 9—for no apparent reason—Trump tweeted out a photograph of him with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Apparently, he admires Reagan more than he did when Reagan was president. Reagan was nicknamed the great communicator; Trump is on path to be labeled the lousy tweeter. But on the first day he became president-elect, Reagan stepped before the press and held a wide-ranging press conference that dealt almost exclusively with policy issues—domestic and foreign affairs, possible staff and Cabinet choices and the like. Reagan was masterful and conveyed a level of knowledge that most likely served to comfort critics who considered him a washed-up actor, just like Trump critics consider him just a reality television star and a real estate developer with a poor grasp of policy. In that press conference, Reagan spoke 2,988 words, which used roughly 16,000 characters.
Using Trump-speak, Reagan gave the public the equivalent of about 114 tweets, almost all on policy. And not once did he whine, insult or brag.