Friday, January 17, 2020
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Why tweets are no good for presidents

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted a curious statement about the latest finding by senior US officials that Russians hacked into our computer systems and used the information in a way that favored Republican candidates for US elective office:

Let’s set the record straight.

First, the White House didn’t wait until after Hillary Clinton lost the election to “complain” about the potential for Russian hacking. The president didn’t tweet about it, presumably because the point he needs to get across can’t be summed up in 140 characters or less, but his administration did acknowledge efforts on Russia’s part to influence US political outcomes via hacking activity.

Here’s what Press Secretary Josh Earnest said aboard Air Force One a week before the election:

Well, Kathleen, several weeks ago the intelligence community released an assessment indicating their conclusion that Russia was engaging in malicious activity in cyberspace in an effort to undermine confidence in the US political system. That represents the consensus view of the intel community. They also concluded that some of the information that they obtained through that malicious activity was released consistent with the tactics that we’ve seen the Russian government use in other countries to try to destabilize their political systems. Given the significance of this kind of activity, the intelligence community concluded that this kind of activity could only be authorized at the most senior levels of the Russian government.

The president is concerned about the consequences of that kind of an assessment, and he and his national security team have been monitoring this situation closely. You’ve heard the Secretary of Homeland Security talk about the kind of resources and expertise that are maintained at the Department of Homeland Security to assist election administrators across the country as they fortify their systems against potential Russian intrusions.

The president has given voice to his own confidence in our election system to make sure that as people are reading these news reports, that it doesn’t cause them to call into question the likelihood that their vote—that any vote that they cast on Election Day—will be counted, and that the outcome of the election will reflect the will of the people who show up to vote on Election Day.

The president has got complete confidence that our system of democracy and our system of administering elections is durable and strong. But he’s mindful of the national security threat that this kind of malicious behavior shows, and he’s going to monitor it closely.

What’s also true, however, is that any sort of investigation—criminal investigation—that arises from that assessment is something that will be conducted by investigators at the Department of Justice and at the FBI. And, as we discussed at some length yesterday, those sorts of investigations are conducted independent of any sort of political interference. That is a longstanding norm and tradition that is maintained by the Department of Justice, and the Obama White House has been scrupulous about adhering to guidelines that urge against even the appearance of political interference.

If there’s a decision that is made to discuss any investigations publicly, those are decisions that are made by officials at the Department of Justice and at the FBI. And they certainly are not made at the behest of anybody who works at the White House.

That’s more than a tweet’s worth, but it underscores how significant the threat was and calls into question Mr Trump’s ability to comprehend—or, at least, to tweet about—the goings-on at the highest levels of the American government.

Donald Trump campaigns in N.H., October 2015 (Michael Vadon / Flickr CC)

And while these Trump tweets appear to be focused on keeping his base of support in line, I want to point out that he has already won the election. It’s time to stop focusing on that single group of supporters and focus on his role as the president for all US citizens.

He need not appeal to the crowd at this point, but he does need to govern, and he needs to communicate openly with the American people about what’s going on. Tweets like the one here spread false information, because they falsely accuse people of things they didn’t do.

Furthermore, when a president-elect tweets false information, that social media activity will damage his credibility and the credibility of the US government. There will come a day when we’ll have no choice but to believe what he tells us, and that would be a lot easier to swallow if he hadn’t sent out so many tweets like this one.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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