On Sunday, the president tweeted out a message that could have plunged the country into a constitutional crisis or could have meant nothing at all. It was awkwardly worded and spotted through with errant capitalization. “I hereby demand,” it read, “and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes.” Then, as if for good measure, it went on, “ - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”
For about 24 hours after the tweet went out, nobody—perhaps not even within the White House and the Justice Department—knew what was going to happen next. On its face, the message was a command for the Justice Department to place itself at the president’s beck and call with regard to an investigation in which the president himself was a subject. But the language was vague. And this would not have been the first time that President Trump issued an ultimatum before forgetting about the matter the next day.
As it happened, the president did not forget about his Sunday message. After a Monday meeting with Justice Department officials, the White House announced that the department would expand an ongoing internal investigation to include the suspected “infiltration” of the campaign, and Trump’s allies in Congress would receive a briefing on a related matter.
But the time between the tweet and the White House announcement was a strange period in which Trump’s would-be order had both been given and not been given—a sickening, near-existential uncertainty that has become one of the hallmarks of America under Trump.
By now, we’ve lived through this shadow between tweet and action many, many times. On July 26, 2017, for example, the president sent out a string of tweets informing the world to “please be advised” that “the United States government will no longer accept or allow … [t]ransgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.” At the time, Jeannie Suk Gerson wrote that, “A tweet by a President is neither a law nor an executive order.” But the tweet had enough heft on its own to shape the lives of transgender servicemembers or would-be recruits in the month between when the president hit “send” on Twitter and when the White House issued a memorandum to the Defense Department. One of the successful suits against the first iteration of the ban was actually filed weeks before the policy was formally delivered to the Pentagon, in the interim period after the tweet.
Likewise, one of the particular strangenesses of the Sunday tweet was its oddly formal language. “I hereby demand” seemed fit for a presidential proclamation, elevating Trump’s direct command to a level above his many prior hints that he would like the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies. Perhaps it really was the harbinger of a genuine crisis. But as Twitter sleuths quickly pointed out, Trump used exactly the same formulation in March 2017 to “hereby demand” an investigation of Nancy Pelosi—which, we now know, resulted in nothing at all. In that case, the uncertain period never had a clear endpoint but instead trailed off into insignificance.
Trump’s habit of making policy by tweet is a symptom of his broader disrespect for the normal process of governance. Decisions are announced on the fly and justified afterwards. The tweets are also a distillation of the profound doubt Trump has introduced over whether, in the vernacular of the internet, “nothing matters.” A tweet could be hugely important, or not. (Is this “hereby demand” different from the last “hereby demand” that led to nothing?) The specific wording of the message could be significant, or not. (Did he mean anything in particular by “look into”?) Two-hundred-and-eighty characters on Twitter could have hurtled us into the middle of a constitutional crisis, or not.
And then there’s the inherent absurdity of parsing something so ephemeral as a Twitter feed for clues as to the future of the country. Either nothing matters, or the world is so rich with meaning that there is special providence even in a misspelled tweet.
Consider again the language of Trump’s Sunday message, which pairs “hereby demand” with the promise of a later, “official” demand. This implies that, despite the impressive language, the tweet itself is not actually a formal order—that will come later in some unspecified “official” manner. But the administration has also argued before a federal judge that Trump’s tweets are “official statements of the President of the United States.”
So the uncertainty into which the country was pitched this week produced a familiar kind of seasickness. This time around, the period of confusion resolved without an overt crisis: On Thursday, the FBI and Justice Department briefed congressional leadership in response to their questions. But this is an unstable equilibrium. Even in orchestrating the briefings, Trump further corroded what remains of the Justice Department’s independence and its ability to hold him accountable under the rule of law. The brief appearances of Trump’s lawyer Emmet Flood and of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly at the meeting, before lawmakers were briefed, underline this concern.
Meanwhile, apparently egged on by Fox News, the president continues to accuse the Justice Department of spying on his campaign “for political purposes.” The conspiracy theories propagated by Trump rest both on an indifference to the truth—there is no credible evidence that the FBI orchestrated a politically-motivated effort to take down the Trump campaign—and an obsessive insistence on finding meaning in the smallest details, like former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s use of the word “spy” on a Sunday talk show.
This is true of all conspiracy theories, of course. But because Trump is the president, the theories he endorses have the power to shape the world—so Americans watch his Twitter feed closely, parsing it for significance where there might be none, and looking for meaning in the president’s absurdist world. In this way, Trump turns us all into conspiracy theorists.
Six months after Trump’s inauguration, the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman gave an interview in which she compared the president to “Harold With the Purple Crayon,” the boy in the famous children’s book who uses a crayon to draw a world into existence. Trump’s Twitter feed is one of his many crayons. What Haberman’s analogy hints at is that that there’s something very childish about the power he wields this way: It’s both whimsical and dictatorial, and dictatorial precisely because it’s whimsical. He reaches out and everyone rushes to see what he’s about to draw. It could be just a scribble, or it could be the shape of a new and uglier world.