Washington's Split-Screen Reality

As FBI Director James Comey's congressional testimony contradicted several claims made by President Trump, the presidential Twitter feed offered a distorted account of what Comey said.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

If you watched James Comey’s sensational testimony on Capitol Hill Monday—or read about it in the ensuing avalanche of coverage from mainstream media organizations—you saw something extraordinary take place: For the first time, the FBI director publicly confirmed that the Justice Department is investigating whether President Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.

The stunning announcement quickly ricocheted across the global news media—splashing itself across cable news chyrons, dominating homepages in multiple languages, and all but ensuring that the Russia story will receive A1 treatment for the foreseeable future.

But if you happen to be one of the millions of Americans who gets your news—at least in part—from Trump’s presidential Twitter feed, you saw a very different story unfold Monday.

In an unprecedented—and somewhat surreal—attempt at real-time revisionism on the part of the White House, the official @POTUS Twitter account spent the afternoon live-tweeting the House Intelligence Committee hearing where Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers were testifying. Over the course of three hours, the presidential Twitter feed posted half-a-dozen video clips from the hearing, each with a brief description that aimed to advance Trump’s self-interested version of the Russia controversy.

In some cases, such as this one, the tweets were brazenly misleading:

Trump’s framing here suggests a definitive debunking. In fact, the video embedded in the @POTUS tweet merely shows the NSA director saying he’d seen no evidence of Russia tampering with actual “vote tallies” in key battleground states. There are, of course, many other ways a foreign power could influence the electoral process beyond hacking into America’s voting machines. (According to a report released in January by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI agrees.)

In other cases, the @POTUS tweets seemed intended to distract from Comey’s revelation and retrain the spotlight on the nefarious leakers against whom Trump has been railing in recent weeks.

It is unclear who actually authored these tweets. According to the @POTUS Twitter bio, they are mostly written by Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino. But if nothing else, the aide was taking his cues from the boss. Earlier in the day, over at Trump’s personal account, the president had devoted his early-morning Twitter tirade to dismissing coverage of the Russia scandal. “This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!” he wrote in one tweet. “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign,” he wrote in another.

Trump’s flurry of Twitter activity amid the drama on Capitol Hill created a split-screen effect that was jarring, but not unfamiliar. From the beginning of his campaign in 2015, Trump has excelled at using Twitter—and various other social media platforms—to combat unfavorable coverage, distract from unfavorable facts, and advance countervailing narratives that are tailored to the tastes and desires of his target demographic.

This is one reason close Trump-watchers, including my colleague Derek Thompson, have argued that the president can best be understood not as a political figure, but as a media company. When he is hit with bad headlines, his instinct is not to put out a carefully worded statement in response, and then keep his head down and slog through the news cycle. Instead, Trump immediately goes to work shaping a more favorable alternative reality, and then filing dispatches to his millions of fans.

The most elaborate example of this strategy played out late in the presidential election, when Trump’s campaign—facing a nonstop bombardment of bad press and damaging leaks—began producing its own low-tech version of a nightly news broadcast on Facebook, “Trump Tower Live.” The show featured campaign staffers playing TV anchors and political pundits, delivering a steady stream of reassuring headlines for supporters. A typical broadcast would rack up north of a million views.

“Trump Tower Live” was widely viewed in political circles as both innovative and deeply cynical. But the live-tweeting from @POTUS on Monday still seems like an escalation. This was not just campaign spin, or even presidential obfuscation. It was an official government communications arm of the executive branch with massive reach—something akin to a state-run media outlet—deliberately misreporting, in real time, what was happening on Capitol Hill. And the effort is only likely to get more elaborate, and more deliberate, the longer Russia remains in the headlines.

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