Can Tweets Be Considered Policy? The Digital Age of the Presidency.

According to Donald Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer, “the president is the most effective messenger of his agenda.” One of the ways that Donald Trump pushes this agenda and informs the public of his positions is through Twitter. 55.3 million people follow Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump. 24.3 million people follow the official Twitter account set up for the President of the United States. 17.5 million people follow the official White House account. Thus, for any given tweet sent out by Trump, over 100 million people are reached within seconds, a number that encompasses roughly ⅓ of the American population. Sometimes Trump tweets about the “crooked media,” sometimes he tweets about events that he is attending that day, and sometimes he tweets to push his agenda and promote controversial new policies. Oftentimes these tweets are sent out without consultation with senior staff, policy advisors, or government agencies that work with the administration, surprising officials and leaving in its wake a trail of political disorganization and chaos for the staffers who have to implement this newly discovered policy to clean up. However, statements that are released by the president, regardless of the medium used for dissemination, must be considered official White House policy and analyzed in conjunction with the challenges that “policy tweets” pose as conflicts of interests and new agenda items for the officials tasked with their implementation.

Much of the debate that surrounds whether or not Trump’s tweets should be considered official policy is rooted in the assessment that the majority of his tweets are published under his personal account rather than the official presidential account. In May of 2015, the Obama White House unveiled the first official @POTUS Twitter account. As an official federal account, staffers attempted to avoid accusations of conflicts of interest by distinguishing between what was tweeted by the official account and by Barack Obama’s personal account. As such, each feed had a clearly delineated purpose: calls for campaign donations and re-election messages were released under Obama’s personal account, while policy and administration updates were tweeted out under the official POTUS account. The Trump Administration has not taken the same steps to make sure that personal opinions are separated from official presidential opinions. Instead, Trump has continued to use his personal account that was originally set up in 2009, and the majority of his policy tweets are retweeted by the official POTUS and White House accounts in order to reach the maximum amount of people possible, blurring the lines between what is personal and what is official.

Despite the disagreement over whether or not the tweets sent from Trump’s personal account should be considered the official policy of the United States, Trump’s own press secretaries Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders have both confirmed that these tweets should in fact be considered part of the administration’s official agenda. In 2017, Sean Spicer told the media during a press conference that Trump’s tweets are “official statements,” and that “the President is the President of the United States, so they’re considered official statements by the President of the United States.” Despite Spicer’s resignation on July 21, 2017, the implication that tweets should be considered policy has continued on with his successors. Recently, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current White House Press Secretary, told reporters that what Trump says is automatically “his agenda.” Elaborating on this point, Huckabee Sanders said, “He’s the one who won the election. He gets to decide the policy and when he’s going to say it.”

With the autonomy to decide policy and deliver it at a moment’s notice, Trump is failing to create a unified strategy that not only is thematically cohesive but also takes into account the objectives of the agencies tasked with implementing his agenda. In September of 2017, Donald Trump spoke at the United Nations General Assembly and called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “rocket man.” Despite international condemnations for using such provoking words against a volatile dictator in possession of nuclear arms, Trump doubled down on this statement on his personal Twitter account, adding that Kim Jong Un is a “madman,” and that he is “short and fat.” While these statements contain no official “policy” or plan for dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons in North Korea, his statements do serve to directly undermine the diplomatic negotiation strategies organized by the State Department. In the weeks following the back and forth insults between the state media of North Korea and Donald Trump, Trump directed a tweet at former-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, saying on October 1, 2017 that he is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man… Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” However, less than a year later, in direct contradiction to the provoking and undiplomatic tweets sent in the fall of 2017, Trump encouraged current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to organize and ultimately hold direct negotiations with the North Koreans.

This is not the first time that Trump has flip flopped on policy through Twitter. In July of 2017, Trump tweeted about imposing a ban on transgender troops in the military, a statement issued without warning the Pentagon. Ironically, at the same time that this tweet was published, the Pentagon had been working on policy that would integrate transgender troops in the military, policy which was the exact opposite of what Trump wanted. In a speech delivered in March 2018 meant to tout planned infrastructure reforms, Trump suddenly announced that the U.S. would withdraw troops from Syria. A few days later, Trump walked back this announcement on Twitter by claiming that the troop withdrawal would only occur after ISIS was defeated. It is these contradictions and inconsistencies that make determining whether or not Trump’s tweets should be considered official policy difficult, given that his opinions drastically shift at a moment’s notice and without warning for the officials in his administration.

Ultimately, regardless of the account that the tweets are published under or the consistency of policy produced, statements that are released by Donald Trump must be considered part of the official policy of the White House. The President of the United States must be held accountable for the language used in all public communication given that he has the direct power to impact diplomatic negotiations, domestic policy creation, and a resulting hundreds of millions of lives.

Domestic, MediaJodi Lessner