If you want to understand the president, don't look to his social media account.
The president of the United States is an important job, so much so that it would seem like his words should carry considerable weight. Pronouncements from the Rose Garden, the Oval Office, or—in America's current predicament—Donald Trump's smartphone presumably signal what the US government is doing or plans to do. Stocks rise and fall on his word alone. Foreign policy observers carefully watch Trump's Twitter feed for indications on the direction of US diplomacy, and note the apparent gap between the president and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. After all, these tweets, as the White House confirmed in June, are "official statements" from the president.
But what do you do when the president's official statements are often nonsensical, toxic, or even dangerous?
All year, journalists and other Trump-watchers have faced this problem. In December, before Trump took office, I wrote that his tweets "aren't necessarily deliberate statements of misinformation, but neither are they necessarily true; sometimes they reflect the important issues of the day, while other times they're meant as a distraction from it." I don't think that has changed, but it's proved pretty tricky to sort out the distractions from the important declarations. Occasionally, Trump has tweeted angry screeds that seem designed solely to alarm people concerned about fading political norms. Other times, he's used Twitter to announce concrete policies, like when he said trans people should be kicked out of the military.
As Trump's presidency trundles along, it's becoming increasingly clear that the best thing to do is to ignore his online persona. That course of action has been suggested by White House and Republican officials who obviously don't want to talk about embarrassing tweets. But there's a better reason for tuning the tweets out, which is that what Trump says matters far less than what Trump does.
There has been an assumption for a long time that the president was the most important official in government and that everything he said was carefully considered and therefore worthy of analysis. But Trump does not consider his words carefully—he spews them out at great volume and with great velocity. When he was merely a wealthy TV star, he feuded constantly with other celebrities. On the campaign trail, he never met a conflict he couldn't turn into a conflagration, including one particularly ugly spat with the parents of a KIA Muslim soldier.
A change in address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has obviously not affected Trump's temperament. Early Wednesday morning he launched into a Twitter tirade that included shots at controversial basketball dad LaVar Ball and the NFL that could have come from a third-string ESPN2 talking head, a retweet of a Hillary Clinton–bashing Trump fan, and a retweet of Fox News host Laura Ingraham who was, uhhhh, praising Charles Manson? Or something?
Ball has previously been one of the president's top targets after proving insufficiently grateful for Trump's help in getting his son, UCLA player LiAngelo Ball, out of Chinese jail—and later hotel detention—for allegedly shoplifting. The president's whinging has elevated Ball's already-high profile to the point where he did a bizarre CNN interview on Monday. This obviously has nothing to do with any big-ticket item on Trump's agenda.
I don't believe Trump tweets in order to purposefully draw the public's attention to shiny objects. He requires no ulterior motive to manufacture tabloid-ready drama; he beefs with whomever he can as naturally as a dolphin frolics in the ocean. Functionally, Trump's tweets are mostly just empty calories. Trump's trans military ban, for instance, wasn't formally proposed via that tweet but a memo signed a month later. It is still under review by the Pentagon and multiple courts have already ruled against it. Meanwhile, Trump's angry rhetoric against North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—his number-one antagonist before Ball, at least—came around the same time the US and North Korea were actually engaged in back-channel talks. (What may have actually made diplomacy with the Hermit Kingdom more difficult was not Trump's tweets but his recent designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.)
Trump can send cable news into a tizzy with a few thumb-taps, but he hasn't demonstrated anything close to that much command over his own government. Congress has largely ignored Trump's budget proposal, and even Executive Branch officials feel free to contradict and disagree with him in public. And what might turn out to be his lasting legacies—such as the politicization and paring back of vital federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the Census, or the administration's brazen conflicts of interest—are never discussed on Twitter.
At this point, ill-considered presidential tweets—along with the occasional bizarre IRL statement—have become routine, as has the outrage they generate. For Trump himself, they obviously provide a way to blow off steam. For his opponents, they are another piece of evidence that he is not a serious or competent chief executive. Many of his supporters, I suspect, enjoy the fact that Trump is publicly taking the fight to his haters—even when those haters are as inconsequential as LaVar Ball or Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch. (One can't help but notice that a lot the targets of his digital ire are black.)
Which is to say everyone gets something out of these "official statements," and I don't expect people to stop working themselves into a lather over the president's Twitter presence. But if we're interested in analyzing what the Trump administration is doing, its goals moving toward, which policies it is actually changing and why, @realDonaldTrump provides little guidance.
Trump won the Republican primaries and then the 2016 general election at least in part because too few people too him seriously. When the leading news stories on the president are so often about his personal grudges and outrageous shitposting, it doesn't seem like we've learned a whole lot of anything.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.