After Donald Trump’s election, many Americans wondered whether he’d stop tweeting from his personal account as he’d pledged during the campaign. He didn’t. In fact, in the first 100 days of his presidency, Trump sent more than 500 tweets from his @realDonaldTrump handle. According to an analysis done by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, those 500 tweets contained 18 explicit references to the TV show Fox & Friends, more than 100 jabs at the media, and the phrase “FAKE NEWS!” four times.
Trump’s personal account has nearly 32 million followers, almost twice as many as the official @POTUS account, and his spokespeople say he tweets because it’s the most direct way to reach his supporters. But Trump’s tweets about the news are often themselves newsworthy: In the past few months, the president has contradicted his own spokespeople, posted unsubstantiated allegations against former President Obama, and most, recently, taken the words of London Mayor Sadiq Khan out of context in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack.
In a Monday interview on Today, White House special counselor Kellyanne Conway downplayed the importance of Trump’s social media habits and condemned the media’s “obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter,” and Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka reminded New Day host Chris Cuomo that Trump’s twitter is “not policy, it’s not an executive order. It’s social media. Please understand the difference.”
While it’s true that Trump’s tweets don’t carry any legislative weight, they do appear to come directly from the phone of the president of the United States. Why shouldn’t they be treated as official presidential statements? It’s a question Russel Neiss has been asking himself.
Neiss is a St. Louis-based software developer who, over the weekend, created @RealPressSecBot, a Twitter bot that transforms the president’s tweets into official statement format, like this:
A statement by the President: pic.twitter.com/H4BxpzFVFu— Real Press Sec. (@RealPressSecBot) June 4, 2017
I spoke with Neiss about his bot—and why he believes Americans should treat Trump’s tweets as real presidential statements. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Elaine Godfrey: How did you come up with the idea for the bot?
Russel Neiss: [Former Obama staffer] Pat Cunnane tweeted on June 4 that he mocked up one of the president’s tweets about the London attacks in a traditional presidential format. It struck me as a really powerful image, the idea being that essentially, at their core, these tweets are literally presidential statements for media use.
Putting it in the traditional format made it all the more jarring between what we’ve expected to see from those formal press releases—and the kind of stuff we see coming out of the president’s Twitter account on a regular basis.
So, when my kids took a nap on Sunday afternoon, I took 40 minutes and put [the bot] together.
Godfrey: How does it work? Are you going to go back and reformat previous tweets?
Neiss: Twitter has an application programming interface (API), that allows programmers to interface with the platform. I’ve created a Python script, a small computer program, that triggers that API, and says “Hey, Twitter, give me the last couple of Trump tweets.” Then it takes the text, runs it through an image processing library, converts the text to the nice format as an image file, then posts it to Twitter.
Now it’s basically tweeting in real time. Every five minutes, it scans the president’s Twitter feed for new tweets. We’ve had some requests from folks who have wanted to see some of the classics, but there’s something more pure about just focusing on going forward.
Godfrey: Do you see Trumps tweets as presidential statements? Should Americans treat them as such?
Neiss: We have a press secretary who is being constantly undermined by his boss’s tweets, and we have surrogates who say they can’t speak for the president. At this moment, the best thing we have is the man’s Twitter account.
That classic quote from the campaign that you have to take the president seriously but not literally? Everyone’s been telling Trump not to tweet, and he continues to tweet, and so I think it’s important to take him seriously, even if not literally. These are serious words coming out of the highest office holder in the land, and all that this bot does is just give those messages the proper honor they deserve.
Godfrey: Do you think it’s harmful that Trump is using Twitter as a sort of replacement for more formal presidential statements?
Neiss: I think it’s fine for Trump to tweet. Obama maintained a personal Twitter account. I’m sure that Clinton would have tweeted had Twitter existed at the time. Presidents always use alternative media to get their message out. This idea of going around the mainstream media is completely understandable and legitimate.
But one of the really interesting things about this president, is that it does not appear that these things are filtered through any formal vetting process. As such, it creates this really interesting world to see the thoughts and objectives of this particular president. These are statements of the president. Putting those tweets in this format emphasizes that, more than just saying it.
Godfrey: The account already has 65,000 followers. How long are you planning to keep it active?
Neiss: It’ll run for as long as Trump keeps tweeting. Maybe come 2020, or sooner, when the next president is inaugurated, we’ll turn it off.