The Intersect | Analysis
June 5, 2017 at 12:46 PM
Monday was another one of those days — a day in which the president of the United States woke up, grabbed his phone and began to tweet out whatever was on his mind while he, it seems, watched television. "People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!" read one of several Monday-morning tweets.
As he was tweeting, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway went on the "Today" show to criticize the media for what she called the "obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president." The implication being: Trump's tweets are not news, and the media covering them as such should back off. It's a position that House Speaker Paul Ryan has aligned himself with in the past, declining to "to comment on the daily tweets" in December when Trump was president-elect.
Twitter, in its very name, seems to imply frivolity. Yet the president's tweets, while informal, do not stick to topics of no consequence. There seems to be no ultimate consensus on their significance: Reporters have generally covered them as words from the president of the United States and as a new phenomenon in presidential communication, while Conway and Ryan have suggested they aren't worth discussing overall. The creator of a viral Twitter bot, @RealPressSecBot, believes he might have an answer.
"It's very straightforward," St. Louis-based software engineer Russel Neiss said about his project in an interview Monday morning. "It scans the @realDonaldTrump account every five minutes, looking for new tweets. If it finds one, it puts it in an official presidential statement format and tweets it out."
In other words, this:
The bot, Neiss said, is simply "taking the president's words and giving them the honor that they deserve." He added, "If there's any ridiculousness in it, it comes from the words themselves."
The bot was inspired by a viral tweet from former Obama White House official Pat Cunnane, who re-formatted one of Trump's Sunday tweets so that it looked like an official statement, issued by the White House:
Neiss likes to make bots — his previous viral bot tweeted out the names, photos and fates of Jews fleeing Europe aboard the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939, most of whom were forced to return home. So when Cunnane's tweet started to go viral, a friend suggested to Neiss that he turn the idea into a bot, too.
"I said, yeah, I can do that while my kids are sleeping," Neiss said. It took him about 40 minutes to build the bot, while his children were down for a nap. To be fair, though, he already had a lot of the code he needed at hand thanks to his previous creations. The Real Press Sec. bot started tweeting on Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning, it had more than 50,000 followers.
"I think it's that it's the dissonance," Neiss said. "At their core, these are presidential statements. The moment you treat them as they are, that dissonance feels real and palpable and obvious."
The president's tweets Monday morning criticized the Justice Department for submitting a "watered down, politically correct version" of the "Travel Ban" and said the department should seek a "much tougher version!" Another tweet on Monday attacked the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. On Sunday, Trump had taken one of Kahn's remarks out of context while criticizing him. Trump's Monday tweet about Khan called the mayor's pushback a "pathetic excuse."
The bot also arrived as the New York Times's Maggie Haberman made the argument that even referring to the content on @RealDonaldTrump as "tweets" isn't helpful for understanding how reporters — and the public — should regard them. Whether made on Twitter, said in a speech or released on paper, all are statements from the president:
Neiss agreed and hoped those encountering his bot would find something illuminating in "taking these statements for what they are. It's not just a tweet. These are tweets that can move markets."
"It was President Bush who said, 'I'm the decider.' " Neiss said. "When push comes to shove, what matters is what's in Trump's head."