President Donald Trump and his defenders have adopted a talking point that, if not actually unprecedented in the history of elected government, is certainly unusual: What the president says doesn’t matter.
Trump himself, during an early morning rage-tweetstorm Monday, mocked “the lawyers and courts” for being cautious with language and proudly referred to his executive order on visas as a “TRAVEL BAN!” (He proceeded to blame “the DOJ” for revising the original travel ban, conveniently leaving out the part where he signed the revised version too.)
Later in the day, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether Trump is concerned that he’s “tainting the waters of the system” with his tweets. She shrugged, “Not at all” — with no acknowledgment that what Trump says about the policy is, in fact, an important reason the travel ban’s been kept on hold by appeals courts.
The idea that Trump is somehow sequestered from the “system,” from the Trump administration’s work of governance, isn’t new. It’s something his defenders have said since before he made it to office: that paying attention to the words that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth is somehow not a helpful guide to the working of Donald Trump’s government.
Any attempt to scrutinize Trump’s tweets or offhand comments is taken by Trump as an effort to shut him down; on Tuesday, he tweeted, “The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media.” His staff, for their part, often treat it as unfair to ask them how Trump’s comments might reflect his governance; Sean Spicer has attempted to deflect countless such questions with “The tweet speaks for itself.”
You can understand why staffers might want that to be true. They might wish Trump were a head of state — an elected figurehead, a human symbol of America — rather than a head of government whose thoughts and remarks really are key to understanding where the country is going.
The problem is that’s not really the way America works. And it’s certainly not the way the Trump administration works. If he isn’t the head of government, nobody’s told Donald Trump.
This isn’t just about Twitter. It’s about any attempt to take policy meaning from the president’s words.
The way the Trump administration wants people to see it, this is just a debate about the president’s use of Twitter. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway complained to a television interviewer Monday about “This obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little what he does as president.” (To underline that the president of the United States is still president on Twitter, the internet helpfully set up a bot that reformats Trump tweets as if they’re official statements.)
But that’s mistaking the message for the medium. The fact of the matter is that the Trump administration has consistently gotten aggravated when the media tries to tease out the policy implications of a thing Donald Trump said.
Last month, Trump’s speech to NATO members pointedly failed to mention that the US remains committed to the NATO charter’s promise of mutual defense — something Trump had waffled on in the past, but that staffers had told the press in advance the speech would definitely clear up. Trump administration officials rushed out to argue that the actual words of the speech hadn’t really meant anything, because the commitment to Article 5 went without saying.
It didn’t, though. That was the point.
This has been a problem for defenders of Trump from the beginning: In their loyalty to some imagined “Donald Trump” brand, they end up having to deemphasize actual statements and ideas from the mind and mouth of Donald Trump, the actual human being.
This is what it meant to take Trump “seriously but not literally” — to look at him and, instead of seeing who he was and what he wanted to do, seeing what he represented to his supporters. Like an ideological Snapchat filter.
This isn’t an implausible model for a world leader, to be honest. Plenty of countries separate their head of state and head of government. It would be ludicrous to treat the Pope’s statements as hints to future policy changes within the confines of the Vatican City, or to spend more time on what the Queen is saying than what Theresa May is.
When Trump’s staff says that he’s turning to Twitter because he wants to speak directly to his followers, that’s what they’re aiming for: an image of the presidency as a pure communion between a leader and “his people.” It’s a pretty cramped vision of stateliness, to be sure — most heads of state make an effort to speak for more than one faction in a polity.
But you can at least imagine Donald Trump as a pseudo-head of state — an avatar of disruption and “outsiderness,” whose agenda is less important than the message his election was intended to send.
The problem is that that’s not the presidency we have in America. And it’s certainly not the presidency we have with Donald Trump.
Trump is unwilling to allow the government to go along without him
Not every president has to be a manager. Usually, those who think of themselves as “big-picture” guys are happy to hire other people to handle the details and ensure the government is functioning well enough to fulfill whatever vision the president has.
That is not Donald Trump.
Trump is aggressively uninterested, for the most part, in the details of governance. But he appears to have a great deal of interest in the exercise of power — to, in fact, be more interested in reminding everyone that he has the power than in carrying out any particular agenda with it.
He came into office to an enormous suite of powers: to an imperial presidency whose powers of life and death have been expanded over the past couple of decades, and a total organizational blank slate as to how those powers would be channeled.
Instead of filling in that organization, he’s kept it deliberately vague — the better to ensure that no one else gets too much power within the White House.
When people who aren’t him get press coverage, he gets angry. When Trump is uninterested in something — say, staffing up the federal government — it doesn’t necessarily get done.
It shouldn’t escape notice that the policy areas in which the Trump administration has made its presence felt in the first months of his presidency are areas in which either Trump appointees (like Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice and Scott Pruitt at the EPA) or civil servants themselves (like line officers in the immigration-enforcement agencies) have had a clear agenda of what they wanted to do and the ability to do it without a lot of press fanfare.
Everything else has had to, or been forced to, go through the president. And that means it’s subject to the president’s whims.
A president who understood himself to be a head of state wouldn’t develop a grudge against a national security adviser who contradicted him in meetings. He would rely on his advisers to a fault — whereas Trump, as a terrifying thread from the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman alleged Monday, will sometimes go against everything they say just to remind them he’s the alpha in the room.
Trump doesn't want to be controlled. In campaign, would often do opposite of what he was advised to do, simply because it was opposite— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) June 5, 2017
A proper head of state wouldn’t have unilaterally removed the Article V language from the NATO speech, as Trump reportedly did — because he would have understood that even though that speech was coming from his mouth, the words carried implications for government. He would encourage Cabinet members to do more interviews about their own work, and take credit for it.
Ultimately, the frustration that Kellyanne Conway and others are taking out on the media is rightly aimed at the president himself. He’s a weirdly charismatic speaker who’s developed a deep bond of identification with millions of Americans — it would be much easier for the Trump administration if they could use him as, as Steve Bannon once said, a “blunt instrument.” But they can’t. He won’t let them. He’s insisting on Donald Trump, the man, running the federal government. And that means the best clues to federal policy often come from the early-morning tweets.