WASHINGTON — A year into his administration, President Trump’s most notable contribution to political communications — from a technical perspective, anyway — has been his use of a personal Twitter feed in which @realDonaldTrump speaks out candidly, often bluntly.
Trump’s volcanic pronouncements have left some of his aides privately voicing hopes that their boss will learn the value of having some unexpressed opinions. Meanwhile, lawmakers in his own party and even his own chief of staff sometimes profess not to follow his tweetstorms in order to duck questions about them. But reporters, government officials, and diplomats scan these tweets and rely on them as official — if sometimes quickly reversed — political and policy positions.
“The president is the president of the United States, so they’re considered official statements by the president of the United States,” former White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in June.
The focus on @realDonaldTrump has yielded one curious result: The devaluing of the official presidential twitter feed, @POTUS. That government-run account boasts 22.2 million followers — not even half its more volatile rival’s 48.1 million. And it’s frequently left to retweet what Trump says on his personal platform. On Thursday, for example, @realDonaldTrump tweeted official video of his remarks about the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. @POTUS had no original posts, and only retweeted its personal counterpart.
And the administration promotes his personal Twitter feed as well. Visit @WhiteHouse on Twitter, and the profile invites you to “[f]ollow for the latest from President @realDonaldTrump and his Administration.” There is no mention of @POTUS. Go to www.whitehouse.gov, and the highlighted presidential tweet is from @realDonaldTrump, not @POTUS. And even @POTUS refers readers back to the president’s personal account — which does not reciprocate.
In terms of tone, a chasm divides the two accounts. The most retweeted @POTUS tweet is from Jan. 21, 2017, and reads: “I am honored to serve you, the great American People, as your 45th President of the United States!” More than 43,000 users shared that message. Over on @realDonaldTrump, the most retweeted comment was a GIF of Trump beating up Vince MacMahon — but with a CNN logo covering the pro-wrestling entrepreneur’s face. More than 354,000 users have seen fit to promote that.
Asked about the White House promotion of Trump’s personal account, an aide expressed surprise. “Does anyone still even read the @POTUS account?” the aide asked.
In some ways, Trump could boast that this is yet another way in which he has dismantled his predecessor’s legacy. Barack Obama signed personally composed @POTUS tweets with his initials “-BO,” and while the @BarackObama account is now his personal venue, during his time in office it was chiefly used for political messages.
Trump’s freewheeling Twitter jabs sometimes get deleted and replaced when they have typos. Such an event happened Wednesday morning after he tweet-asked his own attorney general, “Jeff Session,” to investigate Democrats instead of him.
But the @realDonaldTrump tweets are preserved in compliance with the Presidential Records Act, according to deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley.
It’s far too early in Trump’s presidency to say for sure what his technical contribution to presidential communications will be — though his use of Twitter is clearly the leading contender.
Oval Office occupants tend to build on their predecessors’ work. But the presidents most associated with a given medium are rarely the ones who used it first. Obama’s unprecedented use of in-house media products — videos and photos from events from which the news media was often excluded — drew on George W. Bush’s “BarneyCam” Christmas video. Bush built his White House website thanks to Bill Clinton, who was the first to have an internet presence. Clinton’s sax playing on the “Arsenio Hall Show” owed a debt to Richard Nixon’s appearance on a 1968 episode of the TV comedy show “Laugh-In.” Every modern president has tried to put the commander in chief in front of striking backdrops, a nod to Ronald Reagan’s peerless image-making. If John F. Kennedy is remembered for having fully grasped television’s power in politics, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who, years before, held the first televised press conference. Ike even won an Emmy in 1956. Every student of political communications learns about Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” on the radio, but far fewer know that Warren Harding was the first to use that medium.
In June 2013, Obama became the first president on Twitter. But it’s hard to imagine that the medium won’t forever be associated with @realDonaldTrump.
“While not at all presidential,” Trump began one social media missive last October, “I must point out that the Sloppy Michael Moore Show on Broadway was a TOTAL BOMB and was forced to close. Sad!”
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