Stripped of Twitter, Trump Faces a New Challenge: How to Command Attention


Mr. Trump became a celebrity through television, but Twitter had given him a singular outlet for expressing himself as he is, unfiltered by the norms of the presidency.

President Trump on a news monitor in the White House briefing room on Wednesday, where a video clip he uploaded to Twitter addressing the mob at the Capitol was playing.
President Trump on a news monitor in the White House briefing room on Wednesday, where a video clip he uploaded to Twitter addressing the mob at the Capitol was playing.Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times
Maggie Haberman

His public persona was a product of television for decades.

Through “The Apprentice,” he built a fantasy version of himself as a tough-minded chief executive of a global business empire and a self-made billionaire. His wrestling match-style rallies helped him dominate television during the 2016 presidential campaign. Ever attuned to how he was playing and the power of ratings, he personally chose which anchors he wanted to interview him, and persuaded hosts to allow him to simply phone into their Sunday shows.

But as his campaign played out and his presidency began, Donald J. Trump, the master of the small screen, evolved gradually into a different character, @realdonaldtrump, whose itchy Twitter finger became many things at once: an agenda-setter for the day’s coverage, a weapon against his rivals, a way of firing aides and cabinet secretaries, a grenade he could throw at Republican lawmakers who had crossed him and reporters whose coverage he hated, a window into his psyche, and most of all, an unfiltered pipeline to his supporters.

Now, his Twitter account yanked away from him permanently, President Trump faces the challenge, for both his remaining days in the White House and in a post-presidency, of how to thrust himself into the conversation on his own terms.

He spent the first weekend of his presidency without his Twitter account cycling through fury and acceptance, ultimately telling people he was fine without it. He maintained that being “silenced” would infuriate his supporters.

Even without Twitter, and even under a new threat of impeachment, Mr. Trump remains until Jan. 20 the most powerful man in the world, with access to the White House briefing room, the East Room and the Oval Office to communicate his thoughts. He has a press office devoted to issuing his statements and a cadre of reporters assigned to cover what he says and does.

But while his presidency has often been compared to a reality television show, Mr. Trump has personally moved away from relying first and foremost on the medium that built him into the celebrity he was before running for office and propelled him to the White House.

Trump allies — and Mr. Trump himself — condemned the move by Twitter, describing it as shutting down his free speech rights.

“As I have been saying for a long time, Twitter has gone further and further in banning free speech, and tonight, Twitter employees have coordinated with the Democrats and the radical left in removing my account from their platform, to silence me — and YOU, the 75,000,000 great patriots who voted for me,” the president said in a statement on Friday, claiming that he and his aides have been “negotiating with various other sites.”

Yet by not using the tools available to a president, including public appearances or interviews for most of the past two months, Mr. Trump has in some ways chosen to muzzle himself.

Over the years of his presidency, as controversies and investigations of his conduct began to grow, television became a less reliable safe space. Broadcast networks, pressured to be more aggressive in their approach to him and his aides, asked tougher questions. With the exception of Fox News, cable networks that had rushed to put him on air throughout 2016 and the early stages of his presidency clamped down, cutting back on broadcasting his live appearances in particular.

And his adventures in the White House briefing room generally did not go well and revealed the limits of his grasp of policy or current events. One Trump adviser was blunt, saying that the president did not like most aspects of his job, and that included being asked questions for which he did not know the answers.

So when Mr. Trump went to the briefing room for weeks in the spring to discuss the coronavirus, advisers said, he liked the visual aspects of his performance but not the reality of having a back and forth that led to him being condemned and ridiculed for his dangerous statements about fighting the virus with bleach and light and his fact-free assertions about everything getting better.

Twitter became a stage he could manage more tightly.

It was telling that throughout his time in office, Mr. Trump chose as his primary Twitter channel his @realdonaldtrump account and not his official @Potus account. He understood the power of building his personal brand and keeping it separate from his official duties as president. Twitter gave him a singular outlet for expressing himself as he is, unfiltered by the norms of the presidency.

He would scroll his own Twitter feed, looking at the replies for new topics to throw out. He studied the Twitter trending lists as signals of where the discourse was headed.

In some way, television became the medium through which he could watch the effects of his tweets.

The television in his alcove dining room off the Oval Office was usually on in the background, catnip for his short attention span. He consumed much of his information through it and watched the coverage of his tweets.

Mr. Trump’s White House aides said he loved tweeting and then watching the chyrons on cable news channels quickly change in response. For a septuagenarian whose closest allies and aides say often exhibits the emotional development of a preteen, and for whom attention has been a narcotic, the instant gratification of his tweets was hard to match.

Advisers insisted that they were still exploring the possibility of another platform where the president could speak his mind without filter.

But for now, Mr. Trump has been forced into a more traditional presidential communications posture, reliant on having to stage events with visual allure in the hopes of attracting television coverage. That is what he intends to do on Tuesday with a trip to the southwestern border to promote what he says is progress in meeting his promise to build a wall there.

And with all the outrage and drama that he has stirred in the closing chapter of his presidency, Mr. Trump may yet take advantage of an opportunity to schedule one last major appearance before leaving office.

Jason Miller, a Trump senior adviser, said that if Mr. Trump did give such an address, it would force television networks to make a difficult choice: whether to follow Twitter in silencing the president or allowing him to speak to the American people.

“I would say to many members of the media: Be careful what you wish for,” Mr. Miller said.