The problem of the Presidential tweet is circular. At the beginning of the Trump Presidency, it seemed that tweets might be a distraction or a sideline, a deletable part of the record. Some journalists advocated not covering the tweets at all. Rachel Maddow, of MSNBC, has practiced ignoring the tweets and generally covering the White House “like a silent movie,” to great ratings success.
But tweets have consequences. Journalists get fired and professors get placed on suspension for things posted on personal Twitter accounts. It seems absurd to argue that the tweets of the most powerful man in the world have less weight than those of ordinary professionals. The tweets of @realDonaldTrump express what the President of the United States is thinking, and that alone makes them noteworthy. On top of that, Trump appears to think that he can govern by tweet.
He is not exactly wrong. Presidential tweets do make policy at least some of the time. As we learned in the summer, after Trump tweeted a ban on transgender people in the military, the Commander-in-Chief can give commands in any manner he chooses. Trump is unwilling, or unable, to consider the possibility that all of American society doesn’t function like the military. So, if a tweet fails to produce consequences, the President escalates, groping in the ether for levers to exert the power of his displeasure.
Consider his N.F.L. Twitter sequence. He progressed from generalized outrage to demanding that players who failed to stand during the national anthem be fired, to focussing on an actual instrument of federal government: “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!” Less than twenty-four hours later, he noted that the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, had sent out a letter urging all players to stand for the anthem: “It’s about time.” Perhaps Trump’s tax threat worked.
His Twitter attack on the news media has followed a similar trajectory: a hundred and forty characters at a time, he searches for instruments of power available to him. Prosecute leakers? Get the Senate Intelligence Committee to go after journalists? And, finally, today: “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
The Federal Communications Commission is not the military, and Trump can’t tell it what to do, by tweet or by any other means. And, as the Times pointed out in a detailed article that does the exact opposite of ignoring Trump’s tweet, NBC itself doesn’t hold a broadcast license: its local affiliate stations do. That shouldn’t come as a relief—battles over licenses in local markets are conceivable, and Trump’s tweet can be interpreted as a call to wage those battles. The Timesreminded its readers that such a call is not without precedent in American Presidential history: Richard Nixon encouraged a business associate to challenge a license held by a Washington Post–owned television station in Florida, and Nixon’s Justice Department went after the three major networks on antitrust grounds.
Laws and institutions designed for liberal democracy can be deployed to restrict media freedom. That’s what modern-day autocrats do. Vladimir Putin has used economic instruments against the press, from hostile takeovers of media companies to libel suits that have bankrupted journalists and entire news outlets. Silvio Berlusconi proposed one restrictive bill after another—most didn’t pass, but they served to intimidate the media—and he also called for boycotts of media outlets that were critical of him. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán did all that while also weaponizing friendly tabloids to harass and discredit political opponents. And all autocrats maintain dominance in the media by limiting and strategically apportioning access.
Trump is testing the potential of these strategies. He and his Cabinet members have transformed the rules of media access, shutting the press out of the State Department almost entirely and treating White House press briefings as daily battles with meddlesome reporters. Breitbart and other Trumpian media outlets have harassed and spread outlandish conspiracy theories about the President’s political opponents. But does Trump have the power to take us, by tweet, into the previously unimaginable territory of discussing whether the President can shut down a television network? He just did.