WASHINGTON ― Americans wondering what their next president is thinking can listen to his spokesman, who on Wednesday explained how much Donald Trump is “awed” by the country he is about to lead.
Or they can read his official statements, one of which Tuesday morning had Trump effusively praising two relatively minor White House staff hires.
Or they can go to his Twitter feed, on which he has over the last few days picked a fight with civil rights icon John Lewis, called an NBC News piece “fake news,” complained that poll results showing his historic unpopularity are “rigged” and promoted a CNN special featuring his daughter Ivanka.
For those interested in what’s truly important to the president-elect, there doesn’t seem to be any real debate.
“It’s probably the best window that exists into his mind that exists right now,” said Mo Elleithee, director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University and a former Democratic Party official.
“I’ve come to learn to love his Twitter feed,” said Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member from California and a onetime skeptic of the 140-character-at-a-time approach. “I don’t have to go to any journalist or close friend to know what’s really going on in his brain.”
The downside is that once Trump has tweeted ― often in the early morning hours, without any staff present ― there’s no plausibly denying what’s really going on in his brain.
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer recently argued that Trump’s tweets are actually part of a carefully considered plan. “He is a very strategic thinker,” Spicer said. “He thinks about where things are going to end up.”
It’s unclear, though, what strategy could be underpinning Trump’s tweets mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s TV ratings, or lashing out at Meryl Streep, or complaining about the “Saturday Night Live” skits that mock him.
Spicer did not respond to a Huffington Post query on the matter. But he has on occasion resorted to explaining a Trump tweet with this response: “The tweet speaks for itself.”
Trump himself claimed in a Fox News interview on Wednesday that, despite having sent some 34,000 tweets since 2009, he doesn’t actually enjoy tweeting. “But I get very dishonest media, very dishonest press. And it’s my only way that I can counteract,” he said. “Now if the press were honest, which it’s not, I would absolutely not use Twitter.”
Honest or not, the press still provides most Americans with their information about Trump’s tweets. Far more people learn about them through news coverage than follow him on Twitter.
Trump’s Twitter account has served as fodder for reporters for years, particularly when he was claiming ― falsely ― that there was some uncertainty about where Barack Obama was born and, consequently, his eligibility to serve as president. As Trump started his own White House run in 2015, he would use Twitter to brag about his standing in the polls and insult opponents, which would then generate news coverage amplifying those statements with almost zero effort on his part.
His GOP rivals became reluctant to challenge him, particularly after seeing how Trump’s grade-school taunts against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appeared to resonate with the primary voting base. Mainstream Republican donors were hesitant to fund efforts to derail him because they feared he would attack them and their businesses on Twitter, possibly hurting their bottom lines.
After he won the nomination, Republican Party officials managed to persuade Trump to read speeches that other people had written for him off a Teleprompter (even though he had frequently ridiculed others for using the device and said politicians who did so should not be allowed to run for president) and nearly eliminated his question-and-answer sessions with reporters. But his Twitter account remained his own. This continued to create problems for his staff, as Trump would attack fellow Republicans for not supporting him enthusiastically enough or lash out at women accusing him of inappropriate conduct. It wasn’t until the final weeks of the campaign that top aides successfully limited his Twitter use.
Days after he won the election, Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview that his tweeting would become a thing of the past. “I’m going to do very restrained. If I use it at all, I’m going to do very restrained,” he said.
That has not happened, and even his supporters are resigned to the idea that it won’t happen.
“His tweets are his tweets. Lots of folks wish he would stop, but he isn’t going to stop,” said one top Republican Party official on the condition of anonymity. “So it is what it is.”
Steel, the RNC member from California, said using Twitter has produced big benefits for Trump so far. “It keeps his community of millions of folks quite close to him and militant,” Steel said.
Still, he acknowledged the danger in the practice: “It could always become ruinous.”