Government Officials Are Living in Fear of Trump’s Tweets

Testimony from a former ambassador vividly illustrates how the president wields his Twitter account to bend bureaucrats to his will.

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch arrives on Capitol Hill for a deposition. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch could tell the knives were out for her, even if she couldn’t figure out why. From her posting in Ukraine, she began to get wind of people undermining her in private, she told House investigators in a deposition last month. Then, in March 2019, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that “jokers” like her needed to be fired.

Yovanovitch, a career Foreign Service officer, reached out to her contacts stateside, including her boss at the State Department and the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert. They all expressed “total support,” she said. She then asked the State Department to back her publicly, worrying that otherwise she simply couldn’t represent the U.S. government credibly. A State Department official ran the request up to Secretary Mike Pompeo, and the answer came back: No dice.

“I was told that there was caution about any kind of a statement, because it could be undermined” by the president in “a tweet or something,” Yovanovitch said, according to a transcript of her deposition released today. (Also released was a deposition of Ambassador Michael McKinley, who resigned in September over the department’s failure to stand up for Yovanovitch.)

“What I was told is that there was concern that the rug would be pulled out from underneath the State Department if they put out something publicly,” Yovanovitch said. Not even Pompeo, one of the president’s closest advisers, could do something as mundane as endorse a sitting ambassador for fear that Trump might humiliate and undermine him.

Yovanovitch’s account is hers alone, of course; some of the relevant State Department officials have testified, but transcripts of their depositions have not yet been released. But the ambassador is speaking under oath, and her account reflects a tendency that is already clear: The federal government is terrified of Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

Since taking office, the president has often struggled to enact his desired policies and actions, for a variety of reasons: a noncompliant Congress (under both Democratic and Republican leadership); his own short attention span or inattention to detail; and sometimes the best efforts of his own aides to stymie him. Where the ordinary policy process fails Trump, he sometimes turns to his Twitter account, and has often found it more effective than traditional channels.

The lack of support for Yovanovitch in March wasn’t the only example of the State Department’s terror about Trump’s tweets. A month later, Yovanovitch received a call from Washington at 1 a.m. Kiev time, telling her to be on the next plane back to the United States. She was told it was for her own “security” and “well-being.” Back in the capital, she met with then–Deputy Secretary John Sullivan.

“The deputy secretary said that, you know, he was sorry this was all happening, that the president had lost confidence, and I would need to depart my post,” she recalled. “I said, what have I done wrong? And he said, you’ve done nothing wrong. And he said that he had had to speak to ambassadors who had been recalled for cause before and this was not that.”

Then Sullivan explained why she’d been ordered home so abruptly: “The reason they pulled me back is that they were worried that if I wasn’t, you know, physically out of Ukraine, that there would be, you know, some sort of public … tweet or something else from the White House,” she said. “And so this was to make sure that I would be treated with as much respect as possible.” The State Department was terrified of the prospect of a presidential tweet and was scrambling to protect its own loyal officers from the president.

Twitter is often seen as Trump’s most effective tool for communicating with the general population, but as Yovanovitch’s account shows, it may be most effective at cowing bureaucrats and forcing them to comply with his wishes.

Though the administration has been ever more, as Thomas Wright notes, overtaken by yes-men, Trump has often in the past found his aides unwilling to do things that they think are stupid, foolhardy, or self-destructive. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn refused to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, for Trump’s own good. The former economic adviser Gary Cohn delayed tariffs and even swiped a letter terminating a trade agreement from the president’s desk to prevent him from signing it. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly simply refused to do things Trump told him to do, from attempting to kill the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to punishing Amazon for harsh coverage in The Washington Post, a paper owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

This is not some mythical deep state composed of Barack Obama loyalists. These are Trump’s own political appointees, from Cabinet-level secretaries down. Many of them seem to distrust the president’s judgment (for good reason), and they don’t hesitate to find ways to slow-walk the ideas that they think are bad.

But Trump has a way to flank them, 280 characters at a time. In a deep dive into the president’s social-media habits published over the weekend, The New York Times reported an anecdote that shows Trump’s acute awareness of this power:

In the Oval Office, an annoyed President Trump ended an argument he was having with his aides. He reached into a drawer, took out his iPhone and threw it on top of the historic Resolute Desk:

“Do you want me to settle this right now?”

There was no missing Mr. Trump’s threat that day in early 2017, the aides recalled. With a tweet, he could fling a directive to the world, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Sometimes, he has. In March 2018, the president took the Pentagon, including Mattis and top generals, by surprise when he announced on Twitter that he was banning transgender people from serving in the military. Faced with a public fait accompli, Mattis and the generals couldn’t smother the idea quietly. They were able to water it down somewhat, but a version of the policy eventually went into effect.

In December 2018, Trump abruptly announced a military withdrawal from Syria via tweet. Aides, including then–National Security Adviser John Bolton, were able to mostly walk that back—but as we now know, this was really only a temporary victory, because Trump eventually followed through in October. (Unless, of course, he reverses that too; who can say?)

The way the government bureaucracy leaps to react when Trump tweets these orders creates an awkward situation for the government’s lawyers at the Justice Department, who have repeatedly argued in court that the president’s tweets should not be taken either seriously or literally if they undercut the legitimacy of government actions. (In July, a federal judge reamed out a team of government lawyers after they agreed to drop a quest to include a citizenship question on the U.S. census, only to have the president tweet that he was not dropping the matter.) Federal judges may, on occasion, be willing to believe that the president’s tweets aren’t what matter. But executive-branch officials know better. Nothing seems to get them moving faster than a tweet.

The Yovanovitch deposition contained one more sign of just how far this obsession with Twitter has infiltrated their approach to politics. Baffled by the attacks on her, the ambassador consulted Gordon Sondland, a political appointee who is ambassador to the European Union, for advice.

“He said, you know, you need to go big or go home,” she recalled. “You need to, you know, tweet out there that you support the president, and that all these are lies and everything else.”

Yovanovitch, taken aback, did not act on the advice. A month later, she was recalled by her bosses in Washington, desperate to get her out of the country before a presidential tweet fusillade struck the U.S. embassy in Kiev.