Donald Trump's words as president-elect matter a great deal now because those words suggest future policy decisions. Mr. Trump's words as president will matter far more because those words will reveal real-time policy thinking with real-time consequences.
Mr. Trump's forum of choice is Twitter, which limits individual messages to 140 characters. That means what is being transmitted is headlines, signals, teases, but no substantive detail. Those mini-pronouncements lead to speculation by the press and the public — sometimes contradictory speculation — about what exactly the president has planned.
Does the law require that the president say more, given the weight of his every word?
No and nor should it. Presidents prize the opportunity to speak to the American people without the filter of the media. Nothing requires our leader to take that opportunity only after crafting a white paper or preparing a fireside chat on the subject at hand.
What could change Trump's ability to tweet, however, is the equipment he's given by the White House IT staff — phones, computers, etc. President Obama famously told Jimmy Fallon in a summer interview that he was upgraded to a smartphone that was "state of the art" but due to national security concerns, they had disabled the ability to text and make phone calls. (His BlackBerry did have limited email capability.)
"So basically, it's like — does your three-year-old have one of those play phones?" Obama quipped.
Obama was the first president to actually use social media, creating a huge stir when he sent his first tweet from @POTUS a few years ago, but presumably much of that was done by staff members – not directly from him or his phone.
Trump has said in interviews that he will be "very restrained" if he uses Twitter at all during his presidency.
If he does continue tweeting when he is president, there is benefit to the president restricting himself to 140 characters in communicating with the people about things that are on the top of his mind. Mr. Trump's deftly crafted and spontaneous messages inevitably trigger a response from friend, foe, and neutral alike. Through such robust engagement, the broader public has the opportunity to fill in the blanks in the president's skeletal statements, shaping what may be the earliest draft of policy. That's all to the good. That's democracy.
We may have seen a benign model of how this will work in the Trump era in Mr. Trump's statement about how he intends to address conflicts of interest that may arise between the office he will soon hold and his extensive business holdings. The tweet gave few details, but alerted the public more would be disclosed a few days later at a press conference. In that days-long gap came suggestions, even from the mostly dormant Twitter account of the Office of Government Ethics, the propriety of which sparked a round of debate of its own.
And yet what the law does not prohibit, prudence may discourage. Spontaneous utterances that suggest a shaky grasp of the limits of presidential authority, for example, may create unrealistic public expectations or a decline in public confidence. Comments about pending legal proceedings may affect the administration of justice. Unguarded observations about world leaders may temporarily disrupt American interests. These risks, however, have been part of the presidency since the beginning of the republic.
Technically, there are no legal limits on the president's use of social media beyond those that limit his communication in any other form or forum, such as his duty to safeguard the nation's secrets. The global reach of social media does not change that.
President Theodore Roosevelt famously celebrated the "bully pulpit" the office of the presidency gives its occupant to speak consequentially on any matter. There are nonetheless limits on how much immediate impact even a president's words may have, whether to distract attention or inspire action. A diligent press, an informed citizenry, and two co-equal branches of government are the most important of these checks.
The hope that the coming stream of Oval Office tweets results in a more engaged public outweighs the fear that it will result in a soiled American image. That will all come down to content. The magnitude of success that Mr. Trump achieves in his presidency may depend on it.