It’s an aspect of 21st-century presidential transitions the Founders didn’t quite anticipate: What happens to the president’s social media accounts? Twitter has already detailed how the @WhiteHouse, @POTUS, @VPOTUS and @FLOTUS Twitter accounts will be transferred to the incoming Biden-Harris administration, but the company hasn’t yet addressed its plans for the crown jewel of accounts: @realDonaldTrump. On Friday, the social media platform permanently suspended his account, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence” two days after throngs of his supporters staged a violent riot through the Capitol.
The question shouldn’t be left up to Twitter. By using it to announce official decisions, the president has forfeited any claim to the @realDonaldTrump account. The government should accordingly retain control over the account when the president leaves office. This matter is even more urgent now that the attack on the Capitol grounds has shown that the president’s own use of the account is a clear and present danger to public safety.
From banning transgender military service to threatening the use of nuclear weapons, the @realDonaldTrump account unquestionably has been used for official purposes. Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the @realDonaldTrump account has tweeted more than 19,400 times. Meanwhile, the @POTUS account has tweeted just 418 times over that same period, and hasn’t issued a single original piece of content since June 2018.
This isn’t just a theoretical exercise. There are legitimate governmental interests – strategic, ethical and legal – that prohibit Trump from taking this Twitter account with him into his future life as a former head of state.
As a former government policymaker in this space, I helped lead a yearslong effort at the State Department – home to the largest number of politically appointed positions of any federal agency – to prevent government officials from using their titles and positions to grow their personal social media audiences.
The reasons for this were clear. Strategically, it makes no sense to put taxpayer-funded work into building a politically appointed ambassador’s social media following when the individual that following is attached to will ultimately walk out the door. Ethics regulations prevent government officials from benefiting personally from their public office beyond the salary they draw and the ancillary benefits they enjoy – and this applies to social media accounts as well, as the federal government has made explicit. Finally, accounts that have been used to communicate official government information are subject to the records retention requirements of the Federal Records Act.
The president wouldn’t be the first government official to have to give up his or her personal Twitter account for such reasons. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, also used her personal and political Twitter account to conduct official State Department business. In the process, she gained nearly 1.5 million followers – an eightfold increase from around 200,000 when she took office. That prompted ethics officials to persuade her to relinquish the account after her resignation in October 2018. Haley’s original account has been archived (renamed @AmbNikkiHaley) and her new account (retaining the original @NikkiHaley title) has gained over 700,000 followers.
The U.S. government has a strategic interest in maintaining a clear distinction between official government policy and the political and private communications of those who work for it. Ambiguity can sometimes serve national interests, but not when it arises from internal confusion. President Barack Obama and his aides understood this. His teams set an important precedent by establishing the @POTUS Twitter account for official content in May 2015 while using @BarackObama for political and personal content.
Given the blatant self-dealing and other moral outrages of this administration, the ethical implications of Trump’s Twitter account may seem like small potatoes. But a social media account can have considerable value. The followers of @realDonaldTrump have quadrupled to more than 88 million since the account began publishing official government information on Jan. 20, 2017. Trump now has one of the largest followings among (former) world leaders – second only to @BarackObama – and the sixth-largest Twitter following of all. Trump should not be allowed to keep this platform – built up with the assistance of taxpayer funds and privileged access to government information – because he would be well-positioned to profit handsomely from it in his post-presidency.
Finally, it is clearly in the public and national interest to preserve @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter account – both the public content we have all seen as well as any nonpublic correspondence sent via direct message. Let’s recall that Trump came to power in part by fomenting outrage over Hillary Clinton’s own mixing of personal and official communications during her tenure as secretary of state. Surely it would be a just outcome for the president if the @realDonaldTrump account were retained by the government on similar grounds.
Beyond the obvious risks of allowing this man to continue to have this platform, at the end of the day the archivists must have their way. Whether the @realDonaldTrump account is retained by the government or otherwise archived in full, officials – be they in the White House, the National Archives and Records Administration or in Congress – must uphold their oaths and see to it that all records from the Trump administration are preserved in the public interest. Even, and especially, the tweets.
Graham Lampa is director of digital communications at the Atlantic Council and a former civil servant at the State Department, serving under both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump.
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