Donald Trump and Twitter have a symbiotic relationship. Trump likely wouldn’t be president without the ability to rile up supporters, spread lies and misinformation, and attack his opponents that Twitter provides. Twitter allows Trump to immediately share his thoughts with the world, bypassing any sort of filter or mediation by colleagues or traditional press outlets. His tweets trigger cycles of praise by followers and condemnation by his detractors. Twitter similarly needs Trump’s tweets to remain viable as a social media platform. Millions of people in the United States and around the world read and react to his tweets. Imagine the horror that went through Twitter when the president’s account was temporarily deleted recently. Their entire raison d’etre vanished in a single minute. As the burgeoning Mueller investigation reveals, however, Trump’s tweets may be his undoing.
Trump is impulsive and rarely thinks through his actions, especially when tweeting. He isn’t some master political strategist with a far-reaching plan. He’s like me when I play video games, mashing the buttons together until I figure out something that works. That reality has a bunch of important implications. First, his tweets are often prompted by something he’s just seen or been told. Second, he does not filter information. He’ll use whatever is at hand to strike at his enemies without regard to sourcing and whether that could potentially incriminate him in any way. Finally, because he tweets without thinking, Trump’s tweets provide a real-time snapshot of his thought process at that particular moment. His tweets could answer the question of what did Trump know and when did he know it regarding his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.
A few weeks ago, the Atlantic reported that, on October 12, 2016, the Wikileaks Twitter account sent a direct message to Donald Trump Jr. asking him to promote the release of the latest batch of the Podesta emails. Wikileaks (presumably in the person of Julian Assange) wrote, “Strongly suggest your dad tweets this link if he mentions us. There’s many great stories the press are missing and we’re sure some of your follows [sic] will find it. Btw we just released Podesta Emails Part 4.” Fifteen minutes later, Trump tweeted this:
The explanations for why Trump sent this tweet range from the innocent—he was independently tweeting about his well-known dislike for certain parts of the media and their refusal to cover issues that he considered important—to suggesting collusion with Russia and Wikileaks—Jr. shared the message from Wikileaks and Trump got excited and tweeted about it. Based on what we know about Trump, Wikileaks, and Russian efforts to meddle in the election, I know where I’d put my money.
Another example of this type of tweeting that came out as a result of Michael Flynn’s plea deal. Last Friday, Flynn plead guilty to lying to the FBI about phone calls he made to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016. Flynn admitted that he asked Kislyak to not escalate tensions with the United States after the Obama administration issued new sanctions against Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. After Russian President Vladimir Putin declined to retaliate against the United States, Trump tweeted this:
Again, which is more likely? That Trump naively saw that Putin did not retaliate against the Obama administration—which since Trump hates Obama so much would be a mark of Putin’s good character—or that Trump was pleased that the Russians acceded to Flynn’s request?
All of the available evidence suggests that the second explanation is much more likely. Flynn’s charging document reveals that Flynn had discussed and sought instruction from senior Trump transition officials about what he should say to Kislyak. The implications of these phone calls should not be understated. Flynn’s request to Kislyak occurred after the Obama administration reached out to the Trump camp and asked them to stop making contact with foreign governments without looping in the State Department. The U.S. government cannot conduct foreign policy if the president-elect is trying to undermine the current administration. And especially if the president-elect has colluded with a foreign government to win a presidential election.
Trump’s tweets and Flynn’s phone calls reveal the brazen stupidity of the Trump campaign in its efforts to reach out to the Russians. Trump has had no problem associating himself with accused rapist Julian Assange. He has repeatedly refused to accept the judgement of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russians interfered in the election. Instead Trump has relied on the assurances of Vladimir Putin that the Russians didn’t interfere. Flynn, meanwhile, made his calls to Kislyak on an unsecured phone. The call was monitored by the intelligence community (in the US, but likely other countries as well). When asked about it by the FBI last January, Flynn lied about it. His actions were altogether more astounding because he was the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, one of the key organizations in the U.S. intelligence community. Two days after his interview with the FBI, acting attorney general Sally Yates visited the White House to warn them that Flynn had misrepresented himself to the FBI and was a security risk.
As the Mueller investigation zeroes in on Trump, the president’s tweets may provide the roadmap to understanding the extent of his collusion with the Russians.