One of the White House's more perplexing complaints, of late, is that media outlets are somehow suppressing the president's message. "The FAKE MSM [mainstream media] is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media," Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. "They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out."
@realDonaldTrump: The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media. They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.
Actually, they don't. The press is only too happy to cover the president's latest tweets. That's Trump's real problem.
His unfiltered message is getting through just fine, and it's a mess.
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Trump's team has long defended his habit of delivering Twitter tirades, framing it as a way for Trump to bypass "biased" press outlets. "I think social media for the President is extremely important," Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Monday's press briefing. "It gives him the ability to speak directly to the people without the bias of the media filtering those types of communications."
Trump didn't invent this tactic. Presidents have long had the ability to speak "directly" to the public, whether through speeches, fireside chats, or their own press conferences. Like Trump, Barack Obama also embraced social media — he granted interviews to YouTube stars, and used his Instagram account to highlight symbolic moments from his presidency.
But unlike many of his predecessors, when Trump speaks publicly, he often does so haphazardly. His words tend to confuse and inflame, rather than clarify. His direct connection isn't helping him ... connect. At least not outside his most ardent supporters.
Often, Trump's tweets just rile people up. In the wake of the London Bridge attack on Saturday, Trump used Twitter to repeatedly criticize London Mayor Sadiq Khan for comments that Trump had taken out of context. The feud with Khan strained trans-Atlantic relations and created an unnecessary headache for American diplomats, who rushed to praise the London mayor in spite of the president's tweets. The media noticed.
"[The president] reacted impulsively to Saturday night's carnage by stoking panic and fear, being indiscreet with details of the event and capitalizing on it to advocate for one of his more polarizing policies and to advance a personal feud," wrote the Washington Post's Philip Rucker in a front-page story on Monday analyzing Trump's weekend Twitter activity.
The media's obsession with Trump's tweets has only been heightened by the light-on-facts circus that is the daily White House press briefing. Neither reporters nor the White House seems to care much for them.
"The interaction between the press and the White House has become more of the story than the actual substance itself," Trump ally Boris Epshteyn said this weekend on a nationally syndicated segment produced by the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group.
"From the very start of the Trump administration, the press briefings have veered way off course, becoming more theater than information gathering — theater in which, frankly, the press has often played the leading role," said Epshteyn, who is a former Trump communications staffer. He added that "changes are afoot" within the White House press office.
Trump has mused about conducting the press briefings himself, or perhaps using social media to bypass the press entirely. There are certainly smart ways to do this. Trump could hold daily town halls on Facebook Live, or diagram his tax plans on Instagram, or post essays explaining his vision for health care on Medium.
Instead, the president uses social media like a megaphone for repeating campaign slogans. Since Inauguration Day, one in 10 tweets from Trump's personal account have involved complaints about "fake news!" or the mainstream media. Last Thursday at 9 pm, he tweeted, simply: "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
As long as he keeps that up, he should expect the sort of blistering coverage his feed has garnered of late.
If Trump wants to communicate directly with Americans, then he has to accept the consequences of his words. It's telling that he prefers to broadcast unfocused, typo-ridden thoughts on Twitter — a reactive medium that demands little in the way of contemplation.
Perhaps this explains why, according to a Monmouth University poll last week, 61 percent of Americans believe Trump does more to hurt himself whenever he speaks on his own behalf. Americans can hear what the president is saying — they just don't seem that impressed.