Donald Trump was at the steering wheel as we drove through the rain together on a New Jersey highway in 2005. He had recently considered taking the stage to play a politician in the Broadway comedy “La Cage aux Folles,” but he had other things on his mind as he glanced over at me.
“I have one asset that I think nobody else has. And that’s that if somebody writes about me badly, I sort of own my own newspaper in a way. Like I went after you on the ‘Today’ show,” he told me. “I do have the ability to fight back in the media. I can say that, ‘You, Tim, is not smart. Is a terrible guy.’”
“A total whack job,” I suggested, since he’d used that one before.
“I can say that. Nobody else can,” Trump continued. “In other words, I’m the only guy who can fight back on an almost even plane. I mean, I’m not saying it’s an even plane because you may have an advantage. But I have an advantage, too. Because I’m on television every day.”
He finished off his primer with a flourish: “People don’t want to read about a negative Trump. I really believe that.”
Remember, this was 15 years ago and Twitter hadn’t yet been invented. Neither had Instagram or Snapchat. Facebook was still a baby. But Trump already instinctively understood one of his advantages as a ubiquitous and media-soaked mogul: He had direct access to readers and viewers and could circumvent traditional news sources to get his message out or to go into battle.
Trump’s gut sensibility about how to play the media had been honed through decades of courting and jousting that, even after a series of failures, had left him as an object of interest. That led to his public rebirth on “The Apprentice” and made him ready to rock and roll once social media blossomed. Every social platform offered him the opportunity to run his own printing press and speak directly to fans and critics, but Twitter, a venue of choice for newsies, always held a special allure. And Trump, who adores basking in media attention while also being so singularly insecure that any form of criticism unspools him, has a love-hate relationship with Twitter.
So it came to pass that Twitter, which has long tolerated Trump’s retweeting of racists and anti-Semites while painting his targets as everything from “skanks” to murderers, decided on Tuesday to slap fact-checking notices on a pair of bogus Trump tweets claiming that mail-in ballots lead to voting fraud. Trump, who has the November election front of mind and is reeling from an onslaught of criticism for repeatedly bungling his response to the coronavirus pandemic, would have none of that. He claimed that revenge via a federal crackdown on Twitter and other social media companies was coming.
Early Thursday evening, he signed an executive order that reportedly will strip Twitter and other social media platforms of liability protections they enjoy from lawsuits involving the content users post on their sites — including false or defamatory content. In other words, the kind of stuff Trump posts a lot on Twitter. While such a move might be self-defeating, it’s also not clear how serious Trump is about it. The White House didn’t release the text of the order on Thursday and said it might still be revised.
Trump is also reportedly planning to ask the Federal Communications Commission to make it easier for social media users to sue platforms for removing posts and other content. He also reportedly plans to ask Attorney General William Barr to convene state attorneys general to investigate social media companies for deceptive practices.”
There’s nothing I’d rather do than get rid of my whole Twitter account,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday. “But I’m able to get to, I guess, 186 million people when you add up all the different accounts…. That’s more than the media companies have, frankly, by a lot.”
Trump actually has about 130 million followers on his primary personal social accounts (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram) and he certainly doesn’t have more followers than all of the media companies combined, but you get the point.
We’ll have to wait and see if this turns out to be only Trump rattling his saber. He has a long history of threatening to sue critics and competitors and then not following through. (I was an exception.) If he goes ahead this time, he, the FCC and his White House lawyers will face daunting legal hurdles. Trump can’t force the FCC to change existing regulations that give social media companies latitude to restrict objectionable content. And even if the FCC acts as he wishes, it may not complete its work prior to the November election, because the social media companies will unleash their own attorneys to challenge any change.
The First Amendment’s broad protection for editorial discretion from government dictates applies to social media platforms. In a 2017 federal appeals court fight over net neutrality rules, none other than future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that the government cannot tell companies such as Twitter and Facebook what content to post or favor.
The mere whiff of a federal crackdown could have a chilling effect on the social platforms, it’s true, but that will happen only if the companies allow it. Some internecine squabbles have already popped up, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg telling Fox News that Twitter made a mistake, because no social media platform should be the “arbiter of truth.” It’s quite possible that Zuckerberg is more worried about Facebook being regulated as a news provider rather than as a technology company, or about the added hard work that would come with adequately policing his own website. But that’s a discussion for another day.
None of this is really about free speech or proper regulation of social media, however. It’s about the president’s abuse of his power and his fixation on the politics informing the coming election. Also, his feelings are hurt. He’s acting out. Twitter is one of Trump’s favorite toys, and although he’s momentarily bashing it in frustration, he probably won’t go so far as to break it.
Trump won’t undermine Twitter because he’s addicted to it. He revels in mainlining his thoughts into the American conversation and absorbing all the responses back into his own bloodstream. Twitter is Trump’s drug of choice, and addicts don’t break their habits so easily.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.