What Happens When the President Is a Publisher, Too?

With platforms like Twitter, Donald Trump is able to disrupt congressional hearings in real time.

FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers reacting to Congressman Jim Himes telling them, "I’ve got a tweet from the president." (Screenshot from C-SPAN)

It had to be Twitter. What other platform could a member of Congress use during a high-profile congressional hearing to keep tabs on the president’s reaction to that very hearing?

Not TV. Not radio. Certainly not a crinkly newspaper full of yesterday’s news.

But on Twitter, it’s possible to be sitting in a room full of your colleagues, surreptitiously scrolling on your mobile phone, and notice that, hey, whaddya know, President Donald Trump is tweeting again.

At a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday, Jim Himes decided to share some of those tweets with the men who were there being questioned—the FBI director James Comey and the NSA director Mike Rogers—along with the rest of the room, and the public. Here’s how it went down:

Himes: Gentlemen, in my original questions to you, I asked you whether the intelligence community had undertaken any sort of study to determine whether Russian interference had had any influence on the electoral process, and I think you told me the answer was no.
Rogers: Correct. We said the U.S. intelligence community does not do analysis or reporting on U.S. political process or U.S. public opinion...
Himes: So, thanks to the modern technology that’s in front of me right here, I’ve got a tweet from the president an hour ago saying, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process.” So that’s not quite accurate, that tweet?
Comey: I’m sorry, I haven’t been following anybody on Twitter while I’ve been sitting here.
Himes: I can read it to you. It says, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process.” This tweet has gone out to millions of Americans—16.1 million to be exact. Is the tweet as I read it to you—“The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process”—is that accurate?
Comey: Well. It’s hard for me to react. Let me just tell you what we understand... What we’ve said is: We’ve offered no opinion, have no view, have no information on potential impact because it’s never something that we looked at.
Himes: Okay. So it’s not too far of a logical leap to conclude that the assertion—that you have told the Congress that there was no influence on the electoral process—is not quite right.
Comey: It certainly wasn’t our intention to say that today because we don’t have any information on that subject. That’s not something that was looked at.

The most telling aspect of this exchange is the nearly three seconds it takes for Comey and Rogers to react to Himes. They seem dumbfounded at first. Rogers does a little shake of his head and smirks. And, for once, it seems the moment of disbelief wasn’t—or at least wasn’t only—directed at the substance of the president’s tweet, but at the very fact of it.

In 2017, the president’s habit of spreading misinformation on Twitter is being fact-checked, nearly in real time, by members of Congress. Surely, a president has never before interjected himself into a congressional hearing this way?

It’s really worth watching the video.

As my colleague McKay Coppins wrote, we don’t actually know whether the president personally 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,” Coppins wrote.

Though Trump’s bombastic Twitter presence is a well-worn part of his shtick—or, um, personal brand—Monday’s episode shows he’s increasingly leveraging it for a new kind of punditry. (Possibly also a new kind of propaganda.) True to his reality-television instincts, Trump appeared primed for a fight Monday morning, before the hearing even began, when he used his personal Twitter account to deride coverage of the Russia scandal as “FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!”

What everyone actually knows, or should by now, is that while Trump claims to hate “the media,” he is himself an active publisher. And when the Trump administration talks about the press as “the opposition,” that may be because Trump is himself competing with traditional outlets in the same media environment, using the same publishing tools. It’s no wonder there was so much speculation about Trump possibly launching his own TV network to rival Fox. It’s also no wonder that Trump recently suggested he owes his presidency to Twitter, which he has used to blast critics and spout conspiracy theories since at least 2011.

“I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter,” he told the Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson during an interview that aired last week, “because I get such a fake press, such a dishonest press.”

“So the news is not honest,” Trump went on. “Much of the news. It’s not honest. And when I have close to 100 million people watching me on Twitter, including Facebook, including all of the Instagram, including POTUS, including lots of things—but we have—I guess pretty close to 100 million people. I have my own form of media.”

Trump’s right. He does have his own form of media. But he should also know this: Some Americans may be ambivalent about the truth. Politicians lie all the time and get away with it. But nobody likes the dishonest media.