17 January 2019
17 January 2019

Social media has, in many ways, transformed the way business is done in Washington.

Members of Congress now connect with their constituents via Facebook and Instagram — turning some new lawmakers into instant celebrities who are comfortable sharing their personal lives and thoughts online.

But perhaps no one has trapped the power of social media and used it more to his advantage than Donald Trump. Some say it is the real power behind his presidency.

As a result, we have policy by Twitter — both foreign and domestic.

The days of official presidential statements have given way to a new era of tweets — instantaneous bursts of thoughts from the man in charge. We have decisions made on impulse… and displays of unrestrained anger, often targeted at the news media and his political opponents.

We have learned to shrug off a lot of the stuff that fills his Twitter feed. But sometimes, his habit of ruling by tweet seems downright dangerous.

Trump has said he knows more than the generals… more than leading scientists… more than the diplomats who have spent their careers serving this country. That would be laughable if it wasn’t so scary.

One need look no further than his pronouncements by tweet on the Middle East — a region fraught with tensions that needs to be approached cautiously and with considerable care.

Instead, we find ourselves with a U.S. President who picks up his phone and with no advance warning types out a tweet to announce his decision to remove American troops from Syria:

This is how it is done in the age of Trump.

The abrupt announcement on December 19th took both allies and advisors by surprise. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis quit… French President Emmanuel Macron urged Trump to reconsider… Israeli’s Benjamin Netanyahu raised concerns… even Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seemed to like the policy, worried it might be executed too quickly.

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were both sent to the region to calm frayed nerves and ease fears. Their message: Rest assured, the United States stands committed to defeating the Islamic State and driving Iranian forces out of Syria.

But the confusion did not end. Before long, the tweeter-in-chief was back at it again:

You have do wonder, did the president give any thought to what Secretary Pompeo was doing when he posted that tweet? After all, he threatened Turkey with economic sanctions at the very same time Pompeo was trying to reach a deal with Ankara to protect the Kurds.

For what it is worth,  the Syrian pullout and the Turkish reaction were not the only things on Trump’s mind on January 13th when he infuriated Ankara with his talk of sanctions.

Trapped in the White House during a snowstorm, the president spent most of the day posting one tweet after another — most of them concerned with the partial government shutdown linked to his demand for a wall along the border with Mexico.

The man must have had a lot of free time on his hands. In addition to his tweets spreading fear about an influx of crime at the border, he also took on a Democratic senator’s campaign video, and declared a tabloid that regularly writes about the sex lives of movie stars to be more credible than the Washington Post.

Awkward? Yes. Embarrassing? Definitely.

Last year, the president said that he believes Twitter gives him the ability to reach out directly to his political base, adding that he he wouldn’t be president if it wasn’t for all those tweets. Clearly, he believes social media is the key to his possible re-election.

But will it work? While engaging his base, he is turning off others, and he is generating chaos.

And how much damage can Donald Trump do to the nation and the world in the meantime?

Almost from the beginning of his presidency, there have been calls from critics to delete his Twitter account on the grounds that some of his postings were offensive. But after a series of tweets last year threatening action against North Korea, Twitter responded that there was a special standard for world leaders:

“Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”

So maybe that is what we should do. Take those tweets and expand on them — use them as a way to launch that “necessary discussion.”

That may be the best way to look at the tweets surrounding the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria. Let’s use them to reopen a debate, to really look at the situation on the ground and see if maybe there is a better way.

Let’s take the confusion they create and  have a real deliberative conversation.

There is only one problem. The only person the “Tweeter-in-Chief” wants to talk to is himself.


Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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