Three days after winning the presidency in 2008, President-elect Barack Obama held a press conference, taking questions from reporters. Three days after winning the presidency in 2016, President-elect Donald Trump turned to Twitter.
An unprecedented feature of Donald Trump’s successful campaign for president was his personal use of Twitter and it has continued as Trump meets with advisers and potential members of his cabinet. If this continues into Trump’s presidency, the method will be new, but the approach will be in line with a long tradition of presidents going around the so-called filter of the press.
Since Election Day, Trump tweeted a list of countries whose leaders he has spoken with before his team sent out a press release,
Trump mused about the electoral college.
And, he’s repeatedly used Twitter to air his grievances with the New York Times. (He calls it the “failing” New York Times, though the paper has reported a surge of new subscribers since Election Day.)
Trump hasn’t held a press conference since July, instead opting for the more controlled setting of interviews and of course Twitter, over which he has total control.
“I think I picked up yesterday 100,000 people,” Trump said on CBS’s 60 Minutes, citing his growing legion of Twitter followers. “I’m not saying I love it, but it does get the word out.”
Trump cited it as a method of “fighting back” against stories he considers inaccurate or bad.
60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl pressed Trump on whether he would continue using twitter in the same way as president.
“I’m going to do very restrained, if I use it at all, I’m going to do very restrained,” Trump said. “I find it tremendous. It’s a modern form of communication. There should be nothing you should be ashamed of. It’s — it’s where it’s at.”
“Presidents want to get their message out, unfiltered by the press,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who contributes to “The Upshot” at the New York Times. “In that sense, what Donald Trump is doing with social media is not new.”
But Nyhan added that presidents have typically also spoken to the public via more traditional means like press conferences. Nyhan is concerned Trump may not observe other conventions and norms past presidents have followed.
“The extent to which he uses social media to attack the media directly could be relatively unprecedented,” said Nyhan. “FDR was not giving fireside chats about why the New York Times was a failing institution.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first radio address, known later as a fireside chat in March of 1933, in the midst of a crisis of confidence in American banks. The purpose was to reassure the public, directly. He would deliver more than two dozen of them over the course of his presidency.
President Dwight Eisenhower did televised fireside chats, held the first televised news conferences and created the White House TV studio.
President Ronald Reagan held prime time news conferences, carried live on network TV.
President Obama’s team used social media, releasing its own highly produced videos and posting photos on Flickr rather than letting journalists into the room. And when he needed to sell the Affordable Care Act to young people, Obama sat down “Between Two Ferns” with comedian Zach Galifianakis.
Each president used the latest technology to go around the filter and get directly to the American people in the way that best suited their strengths.
“In a sense, I see it as an extension of what other presidents have done,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, in regards to Trump’s tweeting. She’s a political scientist at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project. “They’ve used the resources that helped them win the presidency. So why change.”
Last week, when Trump met with President Obama at the White House, reporters who were let in to document the final moments shouted questions, as they often do.
Obama offered some advice to his successor. “Don’t answer questions when they just start yelling at you,” Obama said before telling the reporters it was time to go.
Administrations have a way of building on each other when it comes to limiting press access. But Kumar thinks, eventually, a president Trump will find the limits of his favorite medium. Twitter is good for announcements and pronouncements — for feuding even. But Kumar argues that it’s not so optimal for selling policy.
“People want to see a president,” Kumar said. “They want to hear a president. Take his measure and that’s not something that’s suitable for Twitter. Announcements are, but explaining the guts of policy isn’t.”
FDR used his fireside chats to explain policy without having reporters condense and interpret his message. But his administration was also the first to have a press pool, a small group of reporters that follows and documents the president’s movements. It’s something that, thus far, President-elect Trump has not accepted, though his staff said they are working on it. Nyhan said there are no laws requiring it, and public opinion won’t provide much pressure either.
“We can’t expect the public to be outraged that Donald Trump didn’t follow the lid that his staff gave to the media before he went out for a steak dinner,” Nyhan said, referring to a recent night out Trump took without telling reporters. “No one cares. The problem is that the principle of elected officials being accountable to the public through the press is one that’s fundamental to our democracy.”
Trump has only been president-elect for a little more than a week, so it’s probably too early to judge whether he’ll stick with tradition when it comes to interacting with the public and the press once he’s in office.
On January 20th, Trump’s team will be given the keys to the @POTUS twitter account. Though Trump actually has more followers on his own account than the current president.
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