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Twitter Puts an End to Trump’s Rhetorical Presidency

Jacob Schulz
Monday, January 11, 2021, 1:35 PM

The excitement and alarm that greeted President Trump’s ban from Twitter underscores a fundamental truth about his presidency: The power of presidential speech was the only power of the office that ever meant anything to Trump.

President Donald J. Trump boards Air Force One ( White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Public Domain)

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President Trump, who has tweeted 26,234 times since his inauguration in 2017, will tweet no more. On Jan. 8, days after a violent mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol Building, a slate of online speech platforms pulled the plug on the president’s accounts. Snapchat, the e-commerce platform Shopify and the email service provider that facilitates the Trump campaign’s emails, among others, all kicked Trump off their services. But, as Evelyn Douek wrote in the Atlantic, “one ban outstrips all others in its symbolism: @realDonaldTrump has been suspended from Twitter, the platform that has defined this president more than any other.”

Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” citing a “close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them.” The permanent ban followed a 48-hour tug-of-war between Trump and the platform. In the aftermath of the riot—which itself began after he told the would-be rioters “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol … you’ll never take back our country with weakness”—Trump used the platform to post a video addressing his fans in the Capitol: “Go home, we love you. You’re very special.” Twitter responded by preventing anyone from replying to, liking or retweeting the video. The platform later removed three of Trump’s tweets and locked @realdonaldtrump for 12 hours. And then it banned him for good. 

The ban has major implications for both Trump and Twitter. In banning Trump, the technology company finally came face to face with its white whale. The ban marks the apotheosis of Twitter’s crackdown on election-related mischief from Trump and sets Twitter up for a host of tough questions going forward. For Trump, the ban brings an end to a presidency singularly defined by presidential speech. He’s a man whose tenure in office is, as New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel described it, “inextricable from the platform.” Even during a time of a particularly unrelenting news cycle, Trump’s ban from Twitter has hogged a lot of attention. The excitement and alarm that greeted the Trump ban underscores a fundamental truth about his presidency: The power of presidential speech was the only power of the office that ever meant anything to Trump.

Trump never made things easy for his favorite platform. As Douek wrote back in May 2020, “Donald Trump’s tweets pose a special problem for Twitter.” Particularly in 2020, Twitter has steadily ramped up the aggressiveness of its content moderation apparatus. As the platform added rules, Trump dared it to actually enforce them. And for four years, the platform’s highest-profile user created an unending optics and enforcement nightmare for Twitter. According to the New York Times, Trump used to assure his advisers of Twitter, “They’ll never ban me.” He was wrong—and in banning him, Twitter rid itself of the man whose tweets sucked up an enormous amount of the oxygen in the public discussion about Twitter’s content moderation policies. 

There’s also the question of how Twitter freed itself from Trump. The tweets that got Trump banned weren’t just a discrete outburst—they were the escalation of a nine-month-long disinformation campaign about the election. And over the past year, Twitter has deployed a particularly muscular moderation approach toward misinformation about both the coronavirus and voter fraud. In May 2020, Twitter added a fact-check label to two of Trump’s tweets containing baseless claims about voter fraud. “[T]his feels like a watershed moment,” Douek wrote at the time: It represented a “private company … asserting its right to rule even the president of the United States out of bounds.” 

The move presaged months of call-and-response between Trump and Twitter. The president would tweet out disinformation about voter fraud and Twitter would label it. In October 2020, Twitter added a new policy according to which it “will label Tweets that falsely claim a win for any candidate and will remove Tweets that encourage violence or call for people to interfere with election results or the smooth operation of polling places.” After Trump tweeted misinformation on election night and in the following months, Twitter added the fact-check labels to some of the president’s tweets. The permanent ban marks the end of this battle. Even though Twitter did not cite its voter fraud rules in justifying the ban, it makes sense that the posts that doomed @realdonaldtrump had links to the president’s lies about the results of the election.

But despite this continuity, Twitter’s stated reasoning for the ban breaks some new ground for the platform. The pair of tweets that led to Trump’s permanent ban are pretty tame compared to what he’s unleashed on the platform in the past. The first tweet is a version of something Trump has posted dozens of times: “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” The second was even more bland: “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” 

In a detailed blog post justifying the ban, Twitter asserted that “these two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country”—presumably referencing the Capitol riot—“and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence, as well as in the context of the pattern of behavior from this account in recent weeks.” That context, Twitter argued, put Trump in violation of the platform’s policies against glorifying violence and deserving of a permanent ban. 

It’s wise for Twitter to look to context in making such an important decision, but it’s also not consistent with previous interpretive techniques favored by the platform. As Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology has noted, Twitter has previously stressed that for world leaders’ accounts, except in cases of “[c]lear and direct threats of violence against an individual[,]” the platform “focus[es] on the language of reported Tweets and do[es] not attempt to determine all the potential interpretations of the content or its intent”—though Twitter did leave the door open to future changes “as we learn more about the relationship between Tweets from world leaders and the potential for offline harm.” So does the Trump decision represent a permanent change in approach? Or does “context matter” just for Trump? As Llanso noted,  this “kind of nuanced contextual analysis is literally impossible to perform at scale.” And if Twitter does stick with the “context matters” interpretive lens, will it evaluate context in the same way it did here? The post cites, among other things, “how [Trump’s tweets] are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter.” 

By that standard, a whole lot of Trump-adjacent figures (among others) risk a ban, too: Extremist corners have a tendency of “receiv[ing]” and “interpret[ing]” things in extremist ways. But the bigger question, one that Douek tackles in the Atlantic, is whether the fidelity to the terms of service that Twitter demonstrated here will extend to contexts in which a moderation decision might go against or unnoticed by the prevailing political winds. The blog post explains the reasons for the ban, but it also couldn’t have hurt that last week likely marked the nadir of Trump’s public image. Will Twitter apply this same approach to other controversies?

Then there’s the separate question of what this means for Trump. After the ban, people noted, perhaps with some jest, that “Trump sees a Twitter ban as worse than impeachment.” It’s impossible to know whether this is true, although Politico did report that the president was “ballistic” after the ban.

Some serious scholars might scoff at the notion that Trump cares more about a social media ban than he does about impeachment. But the comment actually speaks to a deep truth about Trump’s presidency. For Trump, the central power of the office was never the commander-in-chief authority or veto power—it was speech. The Bully Pulpit—along with the pardon power, which could also be construed as a type of executive speech, or at least an expressive power of the office—was the only power of the presidency that Trump enjoyed and cared to make use of.

Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes note in their book on Trump that political scientists “have long treated the power to speak as an important feature of presidential power.” The Bully Pulpit is a distinct power of the office, and no president has latched onto that power quite like Trump. The political scientist Jeffrey Tulis describes how, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats, there was a strong norm against presidents speaking directly to the public. That norm eroded over the course of the 20th century, arguably culminating with Trump, who speaks incessantly and, as Hennessey and Wittes argue, deploys the “rhetorical power” in “genuinely unprecedented and quite intentional” ways. Trump never failed to exercise his rhetorical power, even as he punted on other presidential powers and responsibilities. He abdicated his obligation to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, for example, but relentlessly tweeted through it. In other words, he collapsed the presidency into not much more than the power to speak and be listened to. 

For nine more days, Trump still has an entire White House press office at his disposal. But Twitter was essential to the particular way that Trump exercised his rhetorical power. Hennessey and Wittes write that Twitter was, for Trump, “a tool for staying directly in the popular consciousness at all times, and in this respect it is immensely effective.” Whereas other presidents used the rhetorical power to persuade, Trump used it to become the world’s most powerful harassment account and attention vortex. The White House press shop, while nominally under his control, can’t move at the speed of a tweet, and might be reluctant to release a statement about “Sleepy Joe” or a one-sentence insult to Mitch McConnell. And Trump used Twitter to sly bureaucratic effect, too: He would send off a tweet that announced a firing or policy shift, and with one click, he’d cut out the normal executive branch process and lock the entire administration into a position he pronounced unilaterally. Without Twitter, he loses his control over the news ticker and his cheat code to get around the normal executive branch process. His rhetorical power deflates without access to his favorite platform. 

The ban provoked the ire of some critics—such as the acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, who argued that the ban was an example of “this administration ... being censored.” But a ban on his personal Twitter account only feels like an attack on Trump’s presidency because @realdonaldtrump represented the total collapse of the dividing line between the person of the president and the office of the presidency. He fired Cabinet officials and announced peace treaties from the same account he used to opine on celebrity gossip and to spew misogynist drivel. And he often used presidential speech for personal reasons. As Hennessey and Wittes write, “There is no difference between his voice as President Trump and his voice as Donald Trump.” 

All presidents have to navigate what Daphna Renan calledthe inseparable duality of the individual president and the institutional presidency.” It’s a redux of the king’s two bodies problem: There’s the sovereign’s “body natural,” his physical person; and then there’s his “body politic.” Trump’s utter inability to disentangle his two bodies has caused him problems before. It’s been the subject of Supreme Court litigation, and it’s part of what got him impeached in 2019. In a demonstration of how porous this barrier became, Trump has never made much use of the official @POTUS account, but in the hours after @realDonaldTrump was banned, Trump started using @POTUS just like it was his personal account—Twitter caught on to the maneuver pretty quickly and removed the tweets from the @POTUS account. As Benjamin Wittes described it to me, to get rid of Trump, Twitter had to kill each of the king’s two bodies. 

Above all, though, there’s one parallel between the ban and impeachment that might have the most enduring importance. Articles of impeachment can and often do include provisions that would ban a convicted president from ever holding national office again. Many analysts, including Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic, have cited preventing Trump from running again in 2024 as a leading rationale for impeachment. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that you must have a Twitter account to run for president. But as Astead Herndon of the New York Times tweeted, the ban is “legitimately bad for [Trump’s] 2024 prospects.” Trump conceded to the Financial Times in 2017 that “[w]ithout the tweets, I wouldn’t be here.” And without the tweets, it’s unlikely he’ll ever make it there again. 

Jacob Schulz is a law student at the University of Chicago Law School. He was previously the Managing Editor of Lawfare and a legal intern with the National Security Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. All views are his own.

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