Donald Trump

Thoughts on a Strange Day—and a Very Strange Presidential Tweet

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, February 10, 2017, 9:35 PM

It was a very strange day.

The only thing lower on my list of expectations than a presidential tweet when I got into an Uber this morning was what I got: an approving presidential tweet.

Yet there it was—a tweet that was, in and of itself, utterly insignificant yet at the same time, the more I thought about it over the course of the day, reinforcing of a wide array of concerns this site has been covering about the way Donald Trump is mismanaging the Office of the President:

LAWFARE: "Remarkably, in the entire opinion, the panel did not bother even to cite this (the) statute." A disgraceful decision!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2017

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The reference was to my short article from last night about the 9th Circuit's denial of a stay of the district court's freezing of Trump's noxious executive order on visas and refugees. No, I had not said or implied that the decision was disgraceful (with or without an exclamation point). And while I had indeed noted the omission in the ruling that Trump was trumpeting and criticized some of the virtue signaling in the opinion, I had noted some other things as well. For example, I had written that "The Ninth Circuit is correct to leave the TRO in place, in my view." I had argued that the key question in the case was whether "the repeated and overt invocations of the most invidious motivations on the part of the President himself, his campaign, his adviser, and his Twitter feed will render an otherwise valid exercise of this power invalid." And I had concluded the post by describing "the incompetent malevolence with which this order was promulgated."

You read that correctly: The President of the United States was tweeting approvingly an article describing his motivations as "invidious" and describing his actions using the phrase "incompetent malevolence."

Had he even read the article, I wondered? Almost surely not, as it turned out. The explanation for how a quotation from Lawfare and from me—a person whose enthusiasm for the Trump administration is, shall we say, under control—ended up in Trump's Twitter feed emerged quickly enough. Within a few minutes, the redoubtable Cody Poplin had tweeted that the Morning Joe show on MSNBC had featured the exact same quotation shortly before Trump's tweet:

.@benjaminwittes @Susan_Hennessey I've found the source... Who else but @Morning_Joe?!

— Cody M. Poplin (@CMPoplin) February 10, 2017

I've been thinking about this sequence of events all day—and it's a disturbing one, albeit in an amusing and harmless context:

  • The President saw a single line of an article on a television show.
  • He tweeted that single line with apparently no idea who the author was or what the publication was, and indeed without reading the rest of the article.
  • Nobody in the White House vetted the tweet to discover the readily apparent fact that the article in question sharply criticized the President and supported the decision about which he was angrily complaining.
  • Nobody warned the President that the article was written by an author who had written numerous other articles ungraced by pleasant words about him—indeed, an author who has been calling him a threat to national security for nearly a year.
  • Nobody warned the President that the site he was about to praise has had a great deal of such writing by other writers as well.

It is a portrait in inconsequential and comical miniature of the incompetence and dysfunction we've been seeing since day one of the Trump Administration. It's the incompetence I wrote about the day after the executive order itself emerged with virtually no vetting. It's also the ineptitude or irrelevance of the White House Counsel that Jack Goldsmith has pointed out:

One person who must bear responsibility for the awful rollout of the EO is White House Counsel Donald McGahn. The White House Counsel is charged with (among other things) ensuring proper inter-agency coordination on important legal policies and with protecting the President from legal fallout. McGahn should have anticipated and corrected in advance the many foreseeable problems with the manner in which the EO was rolled out. And he should have advised the President after his first anti-Robart tweet, and after the other more aggressive ones, that the tweets were hurting the President’s legal cause.

If McGahn did not do these things, he is incompetent, and perhaps we can attribute impulsive incompetence to the President. But if McGahn did do these things—if he tried to put the brakes on the EO, and if he warned his client about the adverse impact of his tweets—then he has shockingly little influence with the President and within the White House (i.e. he is ineffectual).

This is not how the White House is supposed to work. Whole aparatuses are supposed to be there to protect the President from sending out unvetted executive orders, tweeting attacks on federal judges that hurt the government's chances of prevailing in court, and yes, even from tweeting articles he hasn't read and that don't say what he thinks they say.

Think about it this way: If the Trump White House is so incompetent that it is citing my work by accident, how on earth can we trust it to handle North Korea?