140 characters in search of an editor: The tweets that will haunt Donald Trump

(Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

Early Thursday morning — 6:55 a.m., to be precise — President Trump was on Twitter again,  tweeting his thoughts about reports that he is now personally under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice.


Whatever one thinks of the logic or accuracy of his mini-screed, the near unanimous reaction from the legal and political worlds was that Trump was only digging his hole deeper. Every lawyer in the country, presumably including Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, knows to tell his client to keep his mouth (or phone) shut, because he only makes things worse for himself.

But no one has ever had much success telling Donald Trump what he can’t do. Friday morning he was all thumbs again, confirming on Twitter that he is under investigation “for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” He left it to his followers to puzzle out the reference, as no one has suggested that Mueller, who is reportedly investigating him, played any role in the decision to fire James Comey as head of the bureau.  (Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller, drafted a memo justifying Comey’s dismissal. But @realDonaldTrump dismissed that justification.)

In approximately 35,000 posts since his first Twitter missive on May 4, 2009, to promote his appearance on David Letterman’s show, Trump has used the platform to hurl insults, ranging from “awkward” (Mitt Romney, Seth Meyers, Ellen DeGeneres) all the way down to “disgusting” (Fox News, Bette Midler, Barney Frank’s ill-fitting shirt) at enemies ranging from China to Whoopi Goldberg; to boast about how rich he is, how smart he is and how he is the “least racist person there is”; and to promote everything from his plans for peace to the Middle East to the quality of his branded neckties. He has written “hearby” for “hereby” and said he was “honered” by his election. He misspelled “counsel” (as in “special counsel”), writing “councel” instead, after earlier confusing the word with “council.” And, as some have surmised, he seems to have fallen asleep in the middle of a late-night rant about media “coverage,” inadvertently adding “covfefe” to the lexicon. But while his opinion of, say, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (“highly neurotic”), won’t matter in the long, or even short, run, a relative handful of tweets from his campaign and now from the White House have the potential to make history — or, at the least, come back to haunt him as he engages in what may be the early stage of a fight for his political survival.

In the burgeoning scandal over possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence, surely the most damaging statement by Trump came in his interview with NBC, not on Twitter. In that exchange, the president demolished his own administration’s carefully constructed cover story for firing Comey — that it was prompted by the then-director’s public comments about the Hillary Clinton email investigation — admitting that he actually fired him because of the Russia investigation. But there is no mess so deep that Trump can’t make it worse with Twitter, so he dug a whole new hole for himself with his now infamous “tapes” tweet.


The White House has refused to say whether such tapes exist, giving rise to suspicions Trump was bluffing. If so, Comey called his bluff in his testimony to the Senate intelligence committee (“Lordy, I hope there are tapes”). In fact, it was seeing the tweet that prompted Comey to get out first with his own version of his dealings with Trump by leaking the contents of memos describing their meetings. That was the sequence of events that led to the appointment of the special counsel now bedeviling Trump. But either way, the tweet sounded to some in Congress very much like Trump was trying to intimidate Comey, who is a potential witness against him, something that — if Mueller sees it that way — could play into the obstruction-of-justice investigation. At least several lawmakers expressed openness to sending a subpoena for the hypothetical recordings.

Many of Trump’s most ill-considered tweets have involved the judicial system in some way. The most recent example came less than a week ago, in a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the second version of the administration’s executive order restricting immigration. In ruling that the president overstepped his authority in seeking to bar entry to nationals of six majority-Muslim countries, the judges quoted and even embedded a link to Trump’s tweet from a week earlier, which — contradicting White House spokesman Sean Spicer— explicitly referred to the contested executive order as a “travel ban.” In the end — which will probably involve the Supreme Court — it might not matter what the order is called. That’s a question of politics and public relations, not law. But, in an illustration of why amateurs shouldn’t get involved in these things, Trump played into his opponents’ hands by casually referring to the object of the order as “certain DANGEROUS countries,” rather than people who might be linked to terrorism, a significant distinction cited in the appellate decision.

And although Spicer and other White House officials including Kellyanne Conway have tried to have things both ways on the question of how much weight to give Trump’s tweets, the court chose to side with Spicer’s statement earlier this month that the freewheeling Twitter posts are in fact “considered official statements by the president of the United States.”

Most of the fights he picked with Twitter were inconsequential to begin with:


or have long since blown over.



But one group of targets stands out both for his consistency in attacking them, and the foolhardiness of taking them on: federal judges. With little to gain and much to lose in the Trump University fraud lawsuit last year, Trump nevertheless preemptively went on a rant against the otherwise obscure, utterly uncontroversial judge in the case, Gonzalo Curiel:


And when the courts ruled against the original version of his travel ban, he seemed unable or unwilling to recognize that taking on an independent branch of the federal government is qualitatively different than, say, mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on “The Apprentice”:




It is different not only because attacking the judiciary threatens the foundations of American democracy, but because federal judges, although less famous than television personalities, wield great power in the real, as opposed to “reality,” world. And while one expects them to hold themselves above a petty desire to retaliate against those who attack them, they are, like Trump himself, only human. And it seems likely he will have much more business before the federal courts before his term expires.

And his future is also, in part, in the hands of Mueller, who appears to be broadening his investigation in ways that bode ill for Trump. So it would seem prudent to avoid antagonizing the special counsel with a provocative tweet — like the one that went out Thursday morning, an hour after @realDonaldTrump tweeted about “obstruction of justice on the phony story.”


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