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.”