Trump on Twitter: The first year in real time

By Danielle Haynes Follow @DanielleHaynes1 Contact the Author   |  Jan. 18, 2018 at 6:26 AM
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Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Twitter has been around for three U.S. presidential administrations, but over the past year -- President Donald Trump's first full year in office -- it may be safe to say that never has a Twitter account been so closely followed and scrutinized.

The president has sent more than 2,500 tweets to millions of followers -- 46.7 million as of this writing -- since he was inaugurated into office one year ago Saturday. And that's just his personal Twitter account, which he prefers over the @POTUS account he inherited from his predecessor.

Since his first tweet as president (celebrating the transfer of power from D.C. to "the American People"), Trump's posts have ranged from the ordinary (wishing his family members a happy birthday) to matters of national security (calling for an end to chain migration to curb terror attacks).

Trump's heavy reliance on Twitter as a tool of communication has brought up new questions about the security of the commander-in-chief's digital presence, and as well as about the legal and political ramifications when he blocks followers or boasts of his nuclear capabilities.

What are the implications when a president prefers to communicate in 280-character missives punctuated with accusations of "fake news" and insults toward foreign and domestic leaders?

Security issues

The majority -- if not all -- of Trump's tweets are posted by smartphone. During the early days of his presidency, meta data on the tweets indicated they were coming from multiple devices. Experts suspected Trump used a Samsung Galaxy S3 -- he was pictured holding one in 2015 -- while perhaps someone else in his inner circle sent other tweets on his behalf using an Apple iPhone.

But there were serious security concerns with the S3, which could only use older versions of the Android operating software.

Nicholas Weaver, a security researcher from University of California, Berkeley, theorized in January 2017, that Trump's phone likely had been "compromised by at least one -- probably multiple -- hostile foreign intelligence services and is actively being exploited."

President Barack Obama often lamented his own struggles trying to get the Secret Service to allow him to use anything other a Blackberry specifically modified to protect the president. In 2010, he called the device "no fun" and said security concerns prevented him from having an iPhone. In 2016, he told Jimmy Fallon about his new phone during an appearance on The Tonight Show.

"I get the thing, and they're all like, 'Well, Mr. President, for security reasons ... it doesn't take pictures, you can't text, the phone doesn't work, ... you can't play your music on it,'" Obama said. "Basically, it's like, does your 3-year-old have one of those play phones?"

By March 2017, the White House announced Trump had switched to using a "secure iPhone," meaning, it likely doesn't have the same apps and features a standard device has.

Former National Security Agency worker Ben Johnson said the president's phone likely can't make regular phone calls or send regular text messages.

"Those are older networks, they are more open. There's a lot less control," he said.

In fact, top White House officials told Axios Trump only has one app on his phone -- Twitter.

And it's not just foreign actors that can be a threat to cellphone use in the White House. Earlier this month, the administration banned all White House staff and guests from bringing personal cellphones to the White House. Press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to say whether the ban applied to Trump's iPhone.

"The security and integrity of the technology systems at the White House is a top priority for the Trump administration," she said.

"Staff will be able to conduct business on their government-issued devices and continue working hard on behalf of the American people."

The White House began considering the move amid growing frustration by Trump about leaks to the media.

Official statements?

Though Trump often uses Twitter in much the same way as any average user -- sharing links to his favorite articles or retweeting messages he agrees with -- as leader of the country, his posts may carry more power or legal consequences.

At the heart of the matter is whether the president's tweets should be considered official statements. The administration says "yes."

In June, reporters asked former White House press secretary Sean Spicer how Trump's tweets -- both from his personal and professional accounts -- should be characterized.

"The president is the president of the United States, so they're considered official statements by the president of the United States," Spicer said.

And that's how the Department of Justice is treating them, according to a court filing in November in response to a request for clarification from U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit related to the so-called Trump dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Trump has tweeted about the dossier a number of times, calling it "fake."

Lawyers for the James Madison Project, a government transparency advocacy group that filed the FOIA lawsuit, said Trump's tweets calling the dossier "bogus" prove that U.S. intelligence agencies investigated the document. Therefore, the dossier should be subject to FOIA.

In 2017, two federal judges blocked Trump's proposed ban on transgender troops in the military in part because of his tweets.

"After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military," the president wrote. "Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you."

A judge in Maryland said Trump's tweets were "capricious, arbitrary and unqualified" and that there's "no support for the claim that the ongoing service of transgender people would have any negative effective on the military at all."

In reaction to Trump's travel bans blocking people from several Muslim-majority countries early in 2017, immigrants who challenged the executive order said the president's anti-Muslim tweets prove he intended to discriminate specifically against Muslims.

Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general under Obama, is heading a case opposing the travel ban. In November, Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim tweets first posted by a leader in the far-right Britain First Party.

"Thanks! See you in court next week," Katyal tweeted in reaction to Trump's posts.

It's not just domestic matters Trump's tweets could impact. The Kremlin said it views his posts as official and they are presented to Russian President Vladimir Putin in reports.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday told a predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, that he takes Trump's tweets into account when considering foreign policy.

"The challenge is just getting caught up because I don't even have a Twitter account that I can follow what he is tweeting, so my staff usually has to print his tweets out and hand them to me," he told her, according to Variety. Then the secretary asks himself, "How do we take that and now use it?"

In North Korea, a war of words has erupted between Trump and leader Kim Jong Un over nuclear capabilities. In various tweets, Trump has called Kim a "madman" and "Little Rocket Man."

"North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.' Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!" Trump said in a January tweet.

North Korea's official news agency reacted to the post, also resorting to name-calling.

"Trump's bluff is regarded by the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] as just a spasm of a lunatic frightened by the might of Juche Korea and a bark of a rabid dog," the statement said.

Twitter users have called on the social media network to ban Trump for his provocative tweets in accordance with its rule that users "may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people."

But Twitter declined to block Trump, or any world leader for that matter.

"Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions," the company said.

Some Twitter users think Trump also shouldn't be allowed to block people from following him. The Knight First Amendment Institute at New York's Columbia University sued Trump for doing so.

"President Trump's Twitter account has become an important source of news and information about the government, and an important public forum for speech by, to and about the president," the lawsuit reads. "In an effort to suppress dissent in this forum, defendants have excluded -- blocked -- Twitter users who have criticized the president or his policies. This practice is unconstitutional, and this suit seeks to end it."

Tweet speak

Multiple linguistics experts have said they believe Trump's manner of speaking is wholly unlike any president who has come before him. His unique use of language is reflected in his tweets.

Studying the language of Trump's tweets, it becomes clear he authors some, while others, more polished in language, are perhaps written by staffers.

In the early weeks of his presidency, the tweets linked to a Samsung device were different in tone to the ones posted by an iPhone, more reflective of Trump's fiery rhetoric and his tendency to emphasize words through capitalization.

Jennifer Sclafani, associate teaching professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, said that while many of the hallmarks of Trump's speaking style -- tone, gestures and facial expressions -- can't be replicated on Twitter, other elements persist. Sclafani wrote a book about Trump's use of language last fall, Talking Donald Trump: A Sociolinguistic Study of Style, Metadiscourse, and Political Identity.

"He tends to use direct, unmitigated language, he spends a lot of time self aggrandizing and denigrating other politicians and the mainstrem media, he repeats himself frequently to drive home points he wants the public to remember, and he chooses colorful and provocative language to express himself to be sure whatever he says makes headlines on a daily basis," she told UPI.

While some may see these "off-the-cuff" tendencies as "reckless," Sclafani said "others see it as a mark of authenticity."

Trump's favorite words have become part of the American lexicon and been plastered on his trademark red ball caps: "Make America great again," or "MAGA" for short, "Sad!" "Win!" and even insults like "Crooked Hillary."

His mistakes, like the infamous "covfefe" tweet -- "Despite the constant negative press covfefe," Trump wrote in a May post -- have inspired jokes and even legislation.

After he deleted the tweet, which also was an incomplete sentence, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigle, D-Ill., introduced legislation that would classify a president's social media posts as official and as such would be entered into presidential record.

The legislation was called the Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement Act -- the COVFEFE Act.

Ultimately, Sclafani said, Trump's "unconventional" style and linguistic self-presentation as a political outsider spoke with voters.

"It is difficult to determine what effect Trump's use of Twitter has in the greater history of presidential politics, but just as television changed the playing field for presidential candidates in 1960, it seems that Twitter is playing a similar role today," she said.

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