Kellyanne Conway is right ― the media obsesses over presidential tweets from Donald Trump. What she fails to understand, though, is that there’s a very good reason for this obsession. Trump tweets make news because they are newsworthy. If Trump tweets were bland and boring repetitions of White House policy, pre-vetted by the communications team, then it’s likely nobody would pay any attention to them. But they’re not. They are, as one interviewer pointed out to Kellyanne this morning, Trump’s preferred method of communication to the American public. And what he’s got to say makes news because nobody else in the administration can speak for Trump.
The media obsesses over presidential tweets from Donald Trump. What Conway fails to understand, though, is that there’s a very good reason for this obsession.
Trump was supposed to morph, somehow, into a more presidential figure after being sworn in. That didn’t happen, obviously. Trump is still Trump. Part of being Trump is his id-fueled communications to his supporters, often via Twitter. Nobody knows what Trump’ll tweet next, which is part of the obsession Kellyanne complains about, but is also due to how many times Trump has previously made news for himself and his administration ― good or bad ― by tweeting. If there wasn’t the potential for breaking news, then there would be no media obsession (or, at the very least, Kellyanne’s disapproval of it would then be justified).
The problem stems from the inherent nature of the Trump White House. In normal times, the press can talk to any number of sources ― press secretaries, presidential advisors, cabinet members, administration experts ― and they know that these sources are speaking with the full authority of the president. They speak for the president or even with the voice of the president, which means whatever they say will be treated as the official policy emanating from the Oval Office on down. In such normal times, it would be highly abnormal for the president to ever contradict one of these aides or advisors, because any administration wants to clearly speak “with one voice.” So a story about a president contradicting or overruling a spokesman would be big news, in normal times.
Trump’s administration is anything but normal, however. There are competing factions within the White House, making it nothing more than a glorified group of high school cliques clawing at each other for prominence. It actually matters whether a media source belongs to the Jared Kushner faction or the Steve Bannon faction, in other words. Other White Houses have experienced such power struggles, but this is usually seen as a bad thing by them. Trump, though, revels in the competition among his subordinates. It’s a feature, not a bug. Because of this, the duelling cliques can fight right out in the open, which has given the media an absolute goldmine of leaks, which are solely designed to undermine one faction or another. Contradictions abound, even within the highest ranks of the White House staff.
But it’s even worse that that, because Trump himself feels free to chart his own course on just about anything, in his early-morning Twitter sessions. This means that no media source ― no matter how prominent or official or on-the-record ― can hope to “speak with the voice of the president.” Nothing any White House source says can be trusted in the slightest. Kellyanne says something on the morning news shows, and hours later the press office completely contradicts her, and nobody even notices any more, because that’s just how things roll in the Trump White House. The media has some sport explaining the egg on the face of whichever Trump spokesperson has just been undercut, but by now it’s a regular occurrence. Sometimes other advisors will contradict White House spokespeople, and sometimes Trump himself will shoot them down with a single tweet.
Either way, there is exactly zero trust from both the public and the media of anything anyone (other than Trump) says in the Trump administration anymore. Nobody can guarantee that Trump will wind up agreeing with them, their policy, their stance on an issue, or even the basic facts of the case. Statements by the vice president, by cabinet members, by close advisors, and by any number of underlings have been proven to be completely false later on. Nobody can be trusted to speak for Trump but Trump. Sure, it’s soothing to hear people like Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson professing a sober and sane outlook towards the rest of the world, but it’s become impossible to believe either one of them even knows what Donald Trump actually thinks about basic foreign policy at all. Just look at the answers to whether Trump believes in man-made global warming (which have been all over the map this weekend) for proof of this. But no matter what someone like Haley says, everyone still waits to see what Trump will tweet about it ― because nobody knows whether he’ll back up his spokespeople or totally undercut their stance.
This is why Trump tweets matter. Because he never holds back in them, and says what he truly believes. To put this another way: you can trust a Trump tweet, because it comes straight from the presidential fingers. You know that’s what he really thinks, no matter how many aides or secretaries contradict him or try to spin it later on.
This is all exacerbated by how little Trump actually talks to the press. Trump has always had a love/hate relationship with the media, in that he loves seeing his name in the news but he hates it when the news makes him look bad. A key point is that Trump thinks he himself does a perfectly wonderful job of talking to the media. But he seems to be chafing against the restrictions his own team is putting on his press access. By my count, we’ve had one single solo Trump press conference and one single major television sit-down interview from Trump in his over four months in office. That’s not a lot, by Trumpian standards. He used to enjoy sparring with the press on the campaign trail on an almost daily basis, and he even threatened a few weeks ago to abolish the daily White House press briefing entirely and instead directly give a press conference every couple of weeks.
This is what gives the lie to Kellyanne Conway complaining about the media’s obsession with Trump’s tweets. The question should be posed directly to her: “Well, if you don’t want us paying so much attention to Trump’s Twitter account, then why doesn’t the White House staff just ‘let Trump be Trump’ and allow him to hold a full press conference every couple of weeks?” If the press could get direct quotes from Trump on any and all issues, his tweets would be pretty irrelevant. If Trump was breaking news in the White House press room instead of on Twitter, then there’d be no reason to obsess over his tweets. So let Trump be Trump ― he loves matching wits with reporters, so why now allow him to do so on a regular basis?
The Republican Party has reportedly hit upon a strategy for the 2018 midterm campaign ― paint the press as the enemy. It’s the press that is making Trump and the Republican agenda look bad, in other words, so vote for me because I hate the press! The press needs to push back against this by pointing out the White House is so scared of what he’ll say that they are the ones restricting the flow of information from Donald Trump to the people. In fact, it is people like Kellyanne herself who are allowing the press to obsess over tweets when they should be talking directly with Trump himself. Free Trump from his Twitter cage, and let him speak directly instead ― and the problem Kellyanne is upset about will completely go away. If Trump was making news on a regular basis with his direct quotes, then his tweets would be nothing more than an afterthought, barely worth a footnote in the reporting.
Kellyanne Conway is right. The press does obsess over Trump’s tweets. But that’s only because he makes so much news in them. When nobody can trust that a statement by a White House official won’t get contradicted by a Trump tweet hours later, then this obsession will continue. But the ones responsible for this situation are the people in the White House who are terrified to let Trump channel his inner Trump in direct contact with reporters, not the reporters themselves. Since Trump thinks he does such a great job in press conferences, why not let him do more of them, Kellyanne? Let Trump be Trump!
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